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1. Bridging the Gap Far more than the star-studded annual concert that bears its name, The Bridge School has been working for decades to empower individuals around the…
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  • 1. Bridging the Gap Far more than the star-studded annual concert that bears its name, The Bridge School has been working for decades to empower individuals around the world with severe physical and speech impairments. STORY BY ROBIN HINDERY PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRAIG ABAYA & JAY BLAKESBERG
  • 2. The Bridge School opened its doors on the North School campus in Hillsborough in 1987, serving students with severe physical and speech impair- ments. By providing the latest assistive technologies for com- munication and mobility, the non- profit helps students develop the skills they need to return to their home school districts and thrive. The Foo Fighters perform at the Bridge School
  • 3. I ts past fundraising galas have featured performances by Sir Elton John and Dave Matthews and auction items such as a rare motorcycle and an Arabian horse. Itsannualtwo-daybenefitconcertboastsastaggering and diverse lineup of music’s biggest names, from Paul McCartney to Metallica to Sheryl Crow.And it owes its very existence to musicians and longtime Peninsula residents Neil Young and Pegi Young. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when you arrive at The Bridge School and are greeted by a small sign above a handful of class- rooms and offices tucked discretely off to one side of the North School campus in Hillsborough. “Many of our neighbors don’t even know we’re here,” says executive director Vicki Casella. That’s a recurring theme for the 29-year-old nonprofit, which was conceived in 1986 with the goal of ensur- ing that individuals with severe physical and speech impairments received the tools and support they required to communicate effec- tively. “People are always telling me, ‘Oh, I knowThe Bridge School.They have that big concert,’” Casella says. “And I say, ‘Okay, yes, but do you really know The Bridge School?’ Usually they have no idea.” The school serves up to 14 students at a time, ages 3 – 14, from all over the Bay Area, providing them with intensive educational experiences that make use of the latest assis- tive technologies for communication, access, and mobility. For many students, this is the first time they have been truly stimulated and recognized as capable, promising learners. The Bridge School’s goal is not to keep them in this protective bubble, however, but to return them to their home school districts as soon as they acquire the skills they need to participate academically and socially with their typically developing peers.The school’s Transition Program, established in 1991, works to ensure each student’s success by offering ongoing collaboration with his or her parents and local school district educators. The model has proven to be extremely successful.Three Bridge School alums have even gone on to graduate from universities— two from UC Berkeley and one from San Francisco State, where Casella taught special education for many years. One of them, April B., a 2012 Berkeley grad, is currently taking prerequisite classes at Berkeley City College in order to attend a master’s pro- gram in psychology at SF State. She also volunteers as a mentor to young girls, using her own speech-generating device to assist them with their reading skills. Stories like April’s are beyond gratifying to Pegi Young,who co- founded the school along with Jim Forderer and Marilyn Buzolich to address “the lack of appropriate educational programs for chil- dren with severe physical impairments and complex communica- tion needs,” she says. This was an issue close to the Youngs’ heart; their son, Ben, was born with cerebral palsy. Reaching out to their friends in the music industry, Neil and Pegi organized the original Bridge School concert, held on Octo- ber 13, 1986, as a way to raise funds to get the school off the ground.That one-night event set a high bar, with performances by Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, Don Henley, Nils Lofgren, and Tom Petty. (You may have heard of them.) The concert has since expanded to a full weekend of music and entertainment at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View whose program reads like a who’s who of the world’s most celebrated musical performers. The 29th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert is scheduled for October 25 and 26. (As of press time,the lineup had not yet been announced.) “One of my great joys is ‘bridging’the two worlds of music and disability that are the key elements in my life,” Pegi shares. “Another is the opportunity to share with the artists who come and play with us the scope of our chil- dren’s personalities, humor, likes, and dislikes, just as any normally developing child has.It is a real ‘light bulb’ moment for many of the artists who, at the beginning of the weekend, are a bit tentative and unsure of how to approach our kids, and by the end of the weekend have developed an entirely different realization of what is going on under the surface of our children and young adults.” A video project the school undertook at last year’s concert allowed the students a chance to interview some of the perform- ers about their backgrounds and how they got to where they are today. The results were heartwarming and often hilarious. One young man even managed to get some tips from Tom Jones on “how to be a ladies’ man.” Looking back on her nearly 30-year endeavor, Pegi Young can’t help but marvel at what The Bridge School has already AUGUST 2015 // GENTRY // Page 81 I
  • 4. Elton John Tom Jones Jeff Bridges Pegi Young Eddie Vedder, Lucas Nelson, and Florence Welch Florence and the Machine Musician Jack Johnson and students of the Bridge School
  • 5. accomplished.“Though we always dreamt big,” she says,“we have achieved our mission far beyond our original expectations.” Nevertheless, it’s going to take more than star-studded fundraisers to safeguard The Bridge School’s future. “People think we’re well-funded because of that concert, but the concert raises only half of my annual operating expenses,” says Casella. In addition to the school itself and the Transition Program, the nonprofit hosts a teacher-in-residence program for educators from developing countries that enables them to return home and promote the use of aug- mentative and alternative communication (AAC) among children and adults who are currently underserved. “This is sort of a research and development thing,” Casella said in a July interview,gesturing to the small cluster of classrooms that surround her office. “We figure out what works, and then disseminate that information.” Other outreach efforts include an annual summer camp, an Access Fair showcasing the latest AAC tools, and a biennial three- day AAC By the Bay conference that brings the world’s leading AAC innovators and advocates to the Bay Area. “I think of the work we do as skipping a rock across the water— every place it hits makes ripples,” says Casella. To keep that ripple effect extending farther and farther, the nonprofit needs to focus on growing its endowment fund, its leaders say.The target they are shooting for is $50 million. “We know that there will come a time, at this juncture sooner than later, when we will no longer be able to host the concerts,” says Pegi,“and so the need for an endowment to ensure that the school and organization are left in a solid financial position to continue the work we are doing is of paramount importance.” Achieving that ambitious goal won’t be easy, but Casella continues to move full speed ahead with all existing programs. There are too many people counting on the school’s services—both onsite and around the world—to press pause. As she says simply and firmly,“I’m not going to let worrying about the future stop what we’re doing today.” ◆ AUGUST 2015 // GENTRY // Page 83 BRIDGE SCHOOL 2015 REPORT CARD • 74 Current and Former Students • 100% Transition Rate Back to Home School District • $34M Raised Over the Last 10 Years (including $12.75M from the annual concert) • 2,300 Teachers and Therapists Trained • 820 Hours of Lectures and Seminars at Universities • 600+ Artist Performances at The Bridge School Benefit • $1.3M Cost of Bridge School Education Programs Neil Young with Jim James of My Morning Jacket
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