When actress Kym Karath, who played the youngest Von Trapp child in the 1965 film “The Sound of Music,” moved to Malibu seven years ago with her special needs son, Eric, she was at the end of her rope.
Eric, who first suffered a stroke at the age of three weeks, had been lost in an educational system in Greenwich, Conn., that had never been able to accommodate his special learning requirements. Eric’s godmother is Karath’s “Sound of Music” co-star Heather Menzies-Urich, who was married to the late actor Robert Urich.
Little did Karath know that the caring tutelage of Malibu High School special education teacher Lisa Szilagyi would lead not only to hope for the future for her son, but a new nonprofit foundation to serve an often-overlooked community of physically and mentally challenged adults who age out of a state support system.
“Walking into Lisa’s class at Malibu High literally saved my life and Eric’s life,” Karath said. “It seems like she was the first teacher to truly understand that brain damage is as individual as the brain that is damaged.”
After her son was born, Karath withdrew from her film and television career to care for him.
In Greenwich, she thought the affluence there would translate to compassion and educational opportunity. Like many parents with special needs children, she instead learned that most school districts are unprepared to offer the individualized lesson plans most states mandate.
“Eric was happy in Lisa’s class,” Karath said simply. “The parent of every child she teaches will tell you the same. Her secret? It might sound corny, but it’s love. And flexibility and intelligence and indefatigable energy.”
The needs and abilities of brain-damaged children vary widely. Some are unable to communicate verbally. Some have uncontrollable behavioral challenges. Some are mentally very bright, but unable to learn in a traditional classroom.
Szilagyi’s approach to teaching was heavily influenced from working with her own special needs daughter (22-year-old Emily). After working as a special educational aide for five years at MHS, Szilagyi returned to college to get credentialed and then took on the job as a full-time special education teacher.
“Each kid is really unique and requires a different approach to education,” said Szilagyi. “We all continue to learn after we leave high school. Special needs children continue to learn different life skills as they grow older. It might be that they don’t learn to read until they are in their 20s, but they are still learning.”
While Szilagyi is able to provide a nurturing and creative learning environment for her students through 12th grade, state-supported programs are cut off for such individuals at age 18. As Karath described it, the only day programs for adults that exist for continuing education and training are so few that the system is overwhelmed.
After searching unsuccessfully for available programs herself, Karath approached Szilagyi with an idea.
“We created a foundation that would offer a lifelong learning program for special needs adults,” Karath said. “When we began this, parents started coming out of the woodwork, all saying, ‘We can’t find anything for our older children.’ So we found a group of dedicated parents to help form the foundation.”
The Aurelia Foundation was established with the goal of creating a day center that offers continuing education to mentally disabled young adults and beyond in life skills, recreational activities, and vocational training and job support. Staffing would be intensely personal, with a 1:1 assistance ratio up to a 3:1 ratio.
Activities will include reading, math, speech, computer skills, occupational and physical therapy, and field trip activity. Sometimes, the biggest triumphs come with conquering ordinary chores, like learning to run a washer and dryer. Sometimes it’s successfully negotiating a shopping expedition to Ralph’s.
“I try to take my students out into the real world at least once a week,” Szilagyi said. “Whether it’s shopping or movies or the farmers’ market, each trip offers great opportunities to these kids to learn how to function in real life.”
Ideally, “real life” means learning a vocational skill and establishing micro enterprises, perhaps in art or craft products that can be sold at a local farmers’ market.
Karath and Szilagyi believe they have a viable business plan and a motivated board of directors. Now all they need is funding and a space to establish their Aurelia Center. Fundraising has just begun.
“We are poised to prepare a lot of these young adults to become as self-sustaining as they will ever be,” Szilagyi said. “There’s a state-sponsored Workability Program that helps match special needs young adults with businesses that need hires. I’ve placed kids at Becker Surf Shop and Vital Zuman, myself.
“Most of these young people will never be able to live full-time without assistance,” Szilagyi continued. “But ongoing education empowers them to be the best they can be.”
Karath said the idea was to create a program that could be replicated across the country and in doing so, open up worlds that have long been unavailable to brain-disordered populations.
“I see people who have vastly more compassion for their animals than they do for the disabled population,” Karath said. “We’re hoping The Aurelia Foundation will help change people’s perceptions of the disabled for the better.”
For more information on The Aurelia foundation, go to www.aureliafoundation.org.
This article originally appeared in the Malibu Times.