MAKING A DIFERENCE: Foundation helps navigate special education system

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Raja Marhaba is an unstoppable mother.

When it comes to her kids, she is a passionate warrior who will go to the mat for them.

That’s exactly what happened several decades ago when her two sons, Jonathan and Omar, were diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADHD.

After she mentally wrapped her head around having “two kids with special needs,” plus the long road she and her sons had before them, Marhaba sprung into action.

She began to fight, fiercely and tirelessly, to get her sons the free, public school services they deserved.

In 2001, Marhaba rolled up her sleeves and started the Jonathan Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities Inc., named after her first son.

“I would have named it after both boys had I known about Omar earlier,” she said. “The foundation was actually created because of both of them.”

It turns out, that while the boys were “highly intelligent” with 145 IQs, something was seriously wrong.

“At the time they looked great on the exterior, but on the interior, they were struggling,” Marhaba said.

Year after year, the stress and anguish would take their toll both financially and personally — eventually leading to a divorce from her husband with whom she co-owned a construction company.

At an early age, Jonathan had behavioral problems. In pre-kindergarten, he bit a child and was sent from one private school to another. He eventually became eligible for an individualized education program, which establishes a structure for the student and their educators, provides an actionable plan to all involved, promotes education advancement and creates an opportunity for a student and those involved including family, teachers, administrators and other school personnel.

During the “trials and tribulations,” Marhaba, a self-described novice mom back then, was appalled at how long it took educators to figure out one of her sons couldn’t read.

He had ADHD and was “internalizing all this,” she said. While he could recite the story once it was read to him, Jonathan, who was five years behind grade level, couldn’t actually read it and Omar had a comprehension issue.

“Before I knew he had special needs, I thought Omar was a typical kid,” Marhaba said. “Until Omar was 10 or 11, I gave attention to Jonathan. One day Omar ran away because he thought he wasn’t loved. We forget about our typical child because we’re giving so much attention to our special needs child. I hug him to this day.”

While dealing with her two children, Marhaba was not receiving what she expected and was upset at what she still calls “a corrupt system.”

She went to libraries, read books and realized resources were scarce. She immersed herself in anything that had to do with learning disabilities and education. She filed four lawsuits in eight years.

“At the time I was doing this, I couldn’t just Google,” said Marhaba, a Northridge native. “It didn’t exist. There wasn’t a ‘me’ around to guide me. I learned how some teachers aren’t educated. Some want to do a good job and others worry about the money and the powers that be. It’s a national catastrophe.

“The system is politically and financially driven.”

As hard as things looked, Marhaba, now 57, knew she couldn’t give up. There was too much at stake.

“It was the fight to know,” she said. “Knowledge really is power. I knew nothing. That’s what parents knew back then. We knew nothing. I just lost it. I lost it when I was told both of my boys were mentally retarded.

“I had to do something. I was so broken, that I asked God to take my soul to save my children. That was 20 years ago and he hasn’t taken me. I guess I still had work to do.”

The Jonathan Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities focuses on special education systems. It offers resources, information, referrals and special education advocacy services beyond what the school system can offer.

It has a psychoeducational assessment scholarship program that provides private assessments that are administered by highly qualified assessors. It helps families understand their rights and the assessment process. It also helps those who can’t afford psychoeducation assessments for their children.

It turns out that it costs between $5,000 to $10,000 for psycho-educational assessments per child.

“The school districts do assessments, but sometimes children need more,” Marhaba said. “We raise money for highly credentialed assessors.”

The assessments show the levels where a child currently is performing and indicates whether it could be at a higher or lower level, while also emphasizing social, academic, emotional, behavioral and cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

Marhaba is passionate about her work. She does a deep dive on school-related reports and documents in districts nationwide that have failed to provide free and appropriate public education.

“My life journey is special education,” she said. “I understand that there is something more purposeful for me. I’ve advocated for over 300 students pro bono.

“They become my flesh and blood child. I become their surrogate mother when I’m meeting with schools. I get attached. Saving one child is a big deal. I would love to get into prisons and assess the minor cases and see what the assessment says. It’s humanity. It’s human life. We have to let them know someone gives a damn about them.”

Today both Jonathan and Omar sit on the foundation’s board. Both are doing well.

Jonathan, 30, went to Moorpark College and studied business administration. He is now a realtor but is still severely dyslexic. Omar, 32, now has his own car and his own apartment and became very independent, according to his mom.

Marhaba, who was one of L’Oréal Paris’ 2019 Women of Worth honorees, is currently working on a book called “Unstoppable: Getting Special Education Services for Special Needs Kids,” set for publication this summer.

“The book is a resource for families,” Marhaba said. “I teach them about IEP and answer questions the families may have. What’s taught in the book will empower families.”

Today, Marhaba coaches families on the ins and outs of the special education system. She also helps them to understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.

“I do it for those who can pay and for those who can’t pay,” she said.

On May 21, the Jonathan Foundation’s Spring Fundraiser for Children with Learning Disabilities, sponsored by L’Oréal Paris, was held honoring NASCAR driver Felix “Nighthawk” Giles; actor, director, and producer Bill Duke; and attorney Henry Tovmassian.

The event was held at the Cathedral of Our Lady Angels Conference Center.

Others in attendance included former NFL players Ron Brown (Rams/Raiders), Ricky Ellis (Seattle Seahawks), Bob Grant, (Colts/Redskins), and Harold Jackson (Rams/Patriots).

Celebrity youth ambassadors included actor Jacob Hopkins, musician Gerad Hopkins, Jordyn Curet (“Home Economics”) and Merit Leighton (“Alexa & Kati”) and others.

The event raises funds to address the needs of children with autism, and educational, emotional and behavioral challenges through referral to professionals and organizations that provide advocacy, education, assessments, and resources to create a collaboration between families and school districts.

The first fundraiser was held in 2014. Marhaba would like to have an annual budget of $200,000 so she can help as many families as possible with assessments. Currently, the organization raises $60,000 during its fundraisers.

“Half of that will go to assessments,” she said. “Whatever we need for one child. That’s a good year. We can never give up on the children.”

“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

 

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