In 1973, educator Maari de Souza had an epiphany. "As I got to know students with special needs, I saw amazing memory, perseverance, courage, a willingness to go at it over and over again. And I started to realize, it wasn't they that were less; it wasn't they that had to fit in; it was us - the educators. We were the ones that needed to look at our students a little differently." Thus began the seeds of New York's Child School/Legacy High School.
In the early 1970's, Maari found her early professional experience in the field of special education extremely disheartening. While employed as a child psychologist at a Manhattan special-needs grammar school, she was dismayed by the administration's failure to apply academic standards.
Educator Maari de Souza, founder of Legacy High School, graduates another class into the world.
Maari says, "Even 30 years ago, students with special needs had awareness that they were different. It was heartbreaking to see how they felt rejected and also felt tremendous amount of pain, and on the other side, I was taken aback by their sparkles of brilliance. We needed to understand their perspective, and to see what they were seeing. We discovered that there was no limit to potential. We as educators needed to build the bridge."
My own son Mathew enters Legacy High School this summer, so it was with great pleasure I spoke at commencement this week for the graduating class of Legacy High School:
It is a great pleasure to be at the Legacy High School on Roosevelt Island - famous throughout New York City and the nation under the leadership of its founder, Mari
Your achievement here today is immense, brought about by your own hard work and perseverance over year - 12 years of commitment - congratulations! What next for you? Perhaps this is a scary time; it was for me. I graduated from high school - twice. Once in the U.S. - 12th grade, and once in Germany as an exchange student in 13th grade.
I then went on to college. What to study?!, I wondered. What job did I want to have?, I worried?! I thought my options were three: banker, lawyer, or minister. I had no idea. So many possibilities! So I decided to follow my own heart. My best friend in college was Japanese. He was so interesting: he thought in another language and was Buddhist. I became a Japanese Studies major. Why Not?!
After I graduated, I got a job with a Japanese bank on Wall Street. I also began to rescue animals off the streets of New York. On vacation to Indonesia, I saw an orphanage and thought, 'Wow, an animal shelter for children!' I stopped there and met a 10-month old baby boy in an orphanage and fell in love. I brought the child back home to New York City and become his father. Why Not?!
From that experience, I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to orphan care. I dreamed a dream of helping the world's orphaned children: Orphans International Worldwide. My dream was only a castle in the sky, so I had to carefully build a firm foundation to hold it.
What is your dream? Are you ready to follow your own heart?
I know your school quite well. The Legacy High School on Roosevelt Island. Your principals. Your teachers. It is excellent. Here you have learned the skills to succeed.
Life is about relationships. Look around you now! You have made so many here. Now you will go out and begin to make new relationships.
It doesn't matter where you go or what you do as long as you follow your own heart and be the best person you can be. My mom used to tell me that: Be the best person you can be! One thing that I didn't really get in high school is that your parents won't be with you forever. True, parents can sometime annoy you. But they are really, really important. Cherish them. The reason I know about this is because my mom and dad have passed on - and today I am a parent myself.
Some of you might know my kid. He is the friendly Chinese-Indonesian-American boy at the Child School. He begins here at the high school this summer. My son's name is Mathew Luce. I believe in him just like I believe in you. Just like my mom and dad - and teachers - believed in me.
An exciting time for the entire family as a child reaches this incredible achievement point.
When Matt graduates he may go on to college. Or he may focus on his interest in dance. Or he might teach computers to my orphans around the world. I know you guys can do anything you want to do. You can be anyone you wish to be.
Congratulations on your victory here today. It is so exciting! As you go out into the world, be sure to follow your own heart. Be the best person you can be, cherish your family and friends. And be open to new relationships and experiences.
Looking around here, seeing your bright faces, I know you will triumph! We are all so proud of you! GOOD LUCK!
The Child School/Legacy High School is an academically rigorous, yet supportive community addressing the needs of a diverse population of special children, many of whom have failed in other schools. "Our children have learning disabilities that manifest themselves as disorders in thinking, listening, speaking, reading, spelling, perceptual handicaps, dyslexia, developmental aphasia," Maari, explains. "They are not learning-disabled because of impaired vision or hearing, nor do they have gross motor handicaps."
The Child School's goal is for each child to perform to his/her maximum potential. To realize this goal, they embrace the total child, in the belief that their self-image, motivation and ability to interact are critical to their ultimate success. The structured, family-like atmosphere of the school is designed to develop each child's self-concept, not only through an understanding of his or her disability, but by exploring strengths, identifying talents, and heightening self-awareness through interaction with others.
Legacy High School was started in 1996, due to the growth and demand for a High School curriculum. Legacy is one of the few government funded, non-public high schools in New York City, offering both Regents and RCT level diplomas to students with educational disabilities.
See other stories by Jim Luce:
Children's Rights: Protecting Foster Care in the U.S., Stewardship Report
In Sri Lanka: Home for Disabled Children, Stewardship Report
CharityHelp: An Electronic Bridge to Kids in Need, Huffington Post
Sweden's Queen Silvia on "Fire Souls" -- Leaders in Child Protection, Stewardship Report
New York Center for Children Offers Hope after Child Abuse, Huffington Post
Italy Hosts Child Soldiers Symposium, Stewardship Report