There are hundreds of inspiring stories at Villa - clients whose lives have been changed for the better, employers who have seen a positive change in their workplace thanks to Villa's clients, and other nonprofits who can provide services thanks to Villa client volunteers. Scroll down to read more about some of the great things happening at Villa. Be sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as well where we share inspiring stories and updates regularly!
Natalie is a bright, mischievous 12-year-old. A girly girl through and through, she loves Justin Timberlake, makeup and nail polish, and the latest gossip. Natalie also has Rett Syndrome (RTT), a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how she moves, speaks, and learns. Natalie developed normally until she was 18 months old, when she rapidly lost speech and the ability to use her hands. Natalie’s mom Krystal explains, “She couldn't communicate and we would have to be guessing. At Villa I had a good first impression. All the staff made me feel at home.” Villa staff started developing communication strategies for Natalie. They contacted Dynavox, the manufacturer of a Tobii eye gaze device that allows users to generate speech through eye tracking and control. “We convinced them to loan us a Tobii device for 3 months,” Villa Teacher Carol shares. “When the loan ended, we convinced her insurance company to purchase it for her and that was so exciting.” Natalie’s Tobii has given her a voice and the freedom to express her opinion.
It’s a Friday afternoon at Dimensions Day Program, and 45-year-old Senen has taken center stage for a karaoke session. Program participants wait expectantly—Senen is known as a musical connoisseur. Today he chooses an old standby, “Volver, Volver.” Senen takes a deep breath and the first notes draw rapturous applause. “Senen,” his peers cheer, “Woohoo!” The applause subsides and Senen moves on to his next selection, “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” It’s hard to imagine, but this confident crooner wasn’t always so comfortable in a social setting. Before Senen began his Villa journey, the intensity of his behaviors made interactions with his peers difficult—so much so that the first day program he entered after aging out of the public school system asked him to leave. Senen’s brother Hugo explains, “What Villa has done is nothing short of amazing. They’ve taken him from an aggressive guy to the guy I know. He’s able to behave the way he is at home with everybody now. They stuck with him even in difficult times, when others turned him away.”
The crowd is hushed in anticipation when Dennis takes his place at the head of the table. “Mr. President,” a Villa staff calls out, “are you ready to begin?” This is the weekly meeting of the Community Integration Program (CIP) advocacy group. CIP is a day program for adults living with intellectual/developmental disabilities who want to build their employment skills through volunteerism. The newly formed CIP advocacy group gives members a voice in their program activities. “I worked very hard to become president,” Dennis explains. “It was a lot of sitting down and thinking and I practiced speaking in front of my staff.” It wasn’t always this way. “When Dennis first started with us he was depressed and hardly participating,” shares CIP Director Darryl Goodus. Once Dennis joined CIP that began to change. CIP Skills Instructor Perla Moran credits his transformation to Villa’s individualized approach. “Our staff took time to sit down and find out what Dennis wanted to do and what his goals were.”
At 14 years old, Shakobe is a talkative, outgoing high schooler. While assisting with check out at the new Helen Vaughan Memorial Library, his social skills are on full display. “Would you like to check out a book?” he asks, his iPad poised to scan the title’s barcode. The scanner registers the title. “Okay,” Shakobe says, and hands the book over. “Thank you and you’re welcome!” Getting Shakobe to this point wasn’t easy—it has taken him months of careful practice with staff to learn how to check out, re-shelve, and categorize books. Before Shakobe joined Villa in April 2017, he struggled in his local public school where he spent much of his time feeling bored and isolated. Teachers didn’t give Shakobe challenging tasks or opportunities, and he had frequent tantrums. “At his old school I dreaded the weekly phone calls I would get about his behavior,” says Shakobe’s mother Mose. “Since he started at Villa I’ve only got a call twice, and that was at the beginning. They know how to work with him and they’re giving him responsibility.”
When you were a kid, do you remember the one thing that always made you feel better? Maybe it was going out for food, playing with your favorite toy, or singing along to your favorite CD. Now, imagine if you couldn’t ask your parents for that one thing that made everything better. How would it feel to finally be able to communicate? Click through to watch Sam’s inspirational story!
At first glance, the two-story building in Thousand Oaks may seem like an unassuming office complex. In fact, within these walls a groundbreaking exercise in social change has been underway for 30 years and counting—this building is home to Community Conscience, a non-profit that offers rent-free space to non-profit social service organizations. Founded in 1981, Community Conscience grew as a result of a grassroots effort on the part of concerned community members. As a result of the community’s efforts, the idea of a rent-free space for social service organizations became reality—social service organizations like Villa, which has been a proud tenant since 2009. “Villa has the happiest clients in the entire building,” shares Robin Britt, Community Conscience Executive Director. “You complete us—it’s a very successful relationship!”
Clorinda is a happy, confident young woman. She loves Elvis, arts and crafts, and cheering on the LA Lakers. When Clorinda joined Dimensions Day Program in 2009, Program Manager Claudia recalls that she had challenges with aggression and difficulty focusing. “Now she is better able to express herself and her emotions,” Claudia shares. “She can be out in the community whereas before behaviors used to interfere with her involvement.” When she is not busy volunteering at the Foothill Unity Food Bank, Clorinda enjoys participating in community walks and visiting local museums. Clorinda’s parents Felice and Liliana Anselmo delight in her progress. “She is engaged,” Felice says, “and she is motivated. When I saw she was at the food bank putting rice in bags, I was so proud. I never thought my daughter would be able to do that. That’s because of Villa.”
Villa School student Nicolas counts to ten and holds a stretch. It’s yoga time in Classroom 2, and Nic is deftly moving through the day’s poses. “Show me tree pose,” teacher Lauren prompts, and Nic stands tall, with arms stretched skyward. Thirteen-year-old Nic is confident, strong, and focused—a far cry from the timid boy who joined Villa School in 2011. “He was so shy! He had a difficult time interacting with his peers and staff,” Lauren shares. “Now he is one of my classroom leaders. He helps other students find their assistive iPads. He is a true gentleman.” Nic has made great strides academically, too. “It has been amazing to see his math abilities, money counting, and time recognition skills progress,” says Lauren. “I can see the gleam in his eyes when he accomplishes things on his own. His self-motivation and determination has and will take him far.”
When nationally renowned physician Dr. Ricki Robinson first partnered with Villa to co-found a dedicated autism classroom in the early 90s, she was struck by Villa’s can-do spirit. “We were at the ground level,” Ricki explains. Villa staff, generous community members, and local families joined forces with Ricki and her husband Joel, raising $100,000 to bring the classroom up to code. As co-director of the Descanso Medical Center, a practice devoted to children and families affected by autism as well as other neurobiological disorders, Ricki understands that having a willingness to innovate and learn is critical to moving forward. She has brought this understanding to bear while serving on Villa’s Board and committees.
Villa prides itself on the individualized approach to services across its programs. Villa School is no exception, and it is this commitment to a “tailored education” that first impressed parent Wendy Lai-Yeung. When her son Coen started at Villa School he had limited ability to convey his needs and desires. “He didn’t have any speech,” Wendy shares, “and if he didn’t like something he had no way to express himself.” She never imagined that Coen would one day read to her and understand words, but by the end of elementary school he was doing just that, in addition to mastering multiplication tables. Coen’s progress at Villa goes beyond the academic. He is a happy, healthy young man embarking on his first year in high school and enjoys working in Villa School’s campus store where he greets classmates and staff members.
Villa is proud to call Assemblymember Chris Holden of the 41st District a devoted ally in the fight to preserve vital services for the intellectually/developmentally disabled (I/DD) community. Mr. Holden first became connected with Villa while serving on the Pasadena City Council alongside dearly departed Villa parent and late Mayor of Pasadena, Katie Nack. “I had the opportunity to hear her personal experiences and how wonderful Villa was in taking care of her daughter Susie,” Holden explains. Since that time, Holden has participated in many Villa milestones. For Mr. Holden, supporting individuals with special needs is also deeply personal. “My niece is dealing with developmental disabilities,” he shares. “I see the pressure that puts on my sister-in-law...having supportive services and a loving, kind environment is so important.”
When R-lene Mijares de Lang moved back home to help her mother run the family business, Pasadena institution Mijares Mexican Restaurant, she knew she wanted to be involved in her local community. “I was a school teacher in the Bay Area, but my mom needed help here,” R-lene shares. “I had commuted for years, and I said, ‘Mom, when I move back I also want to be involved in the community.’ She said if you do anything, do it for Villa.” For over 25 years R-lene and her husband Gordon have been a vital force for good, supporting a number of organizations including the Pasadena Community Foundation and Huntington Hospital. R-lene remains dedicated to Villa as her first passion and recalls that when her son Derek was growing up, whenever he saw an individual with developmental disabilities he would proudly say, “Mom, there are your friends!”
At just 17 years old, Villa volunteer Jocelyn has already made a profound impact on our community. Jocelyn started volunteering with Villa as a member of the National Charity League of San Marino – she attended monthly social clubs for Villa’s adults, helped create crafts with Villa clients at the Annual Achievement Awards events, and made auction posters for Villa’s Tournament of Hope golf fundraiser. When it came time for Jocelyn to complete her Girl Scout Gold Award service project, the choice to work with Villa again was an easy one. Jocelyn’s project – a library in our Speech and Language Center – will help Villa School students build valuable life and social skills while fostering a love of reading. “It’s been really cool to see the kids come in and go straight to the book case,” says Jocelyn. “It makes me happy to know I am creating a project they will really enjoy and that will really help them grow.”
When 57-year-old Jackie arrives at Villa’s monthly Social and Service (SAS) Club, she greets the assembled group with a warm smile. SAS Club is a monthly gathering for Villa’s adults where they socialize and create a craft that will be donated to the local community. Organized with help from the National Charity League of San Marino, it is one of Jackie’s favorite events. She leads the group in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing a patriotic song, which she also signs with hand gestures. “I like the songs and the Pledge of Allegiance and signing for everybody,” she says, her voice full of pride. Jackie learned to sign when she was a student at Villa’s School and has been part of the Villa family since she was 10 years old. Over the years she has blossomed into a model member of our community, making her mark every day as an enthusiastic participant in Villa’s Residential and Employment Programs.
Founded in 1968 with a mission to increase public awareness surrounding the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities, the Villa Esperanza Guild has raised over $1.5 million for Villa’s programs since its inception. 2018 marks the group’s 50th anniversary. When reflecting on this momentous occasion, inaugural member Georgene recalls that she was initially drawn to the Guild because of Villa’s warm and inviting atmosphere. “Villa had a picnic,” Georgene shares, “and I couldn’t get over the patience of Villa’s counselors and their loving care for clients.” This is a sentiment Cinnie, another founding member, echoes. Cinnie started as a classroom volunteer at Villa’s School and went on to serve as both Guild President and Treasurer. “I certainly enjoyed the time I spent in the classroom. I found an organization where I felt needed and could do good work and stuck with it,” says Cinnie. “It’s been my life.”
When Sofia arrives for her Occupational Therapy (OT) session, it’s time to break out the music. Sofia loves music and today’s soundtrack from Disney’s Mulan motivates her as she builds her core strength. Sofia is especially fond of Disney princesses like Mulan. “We start her session on the swing to get her engaged and using her muscles,” Amy Jensen, Director of OT, explains. Through swinging, Sofia works on her balance and protective reactions. Since starting at Villa in 2013 she has not only blossomed physically, but also grown academically and socially. Initially, Sofia’s parents were hesitant to enroll her at Villa. “We wanted her to stay in a local school. Then we took a tour and met Carol,” Sofia’s father, Tony explains. Carol Cruz, Sofia’s first Villa classroom teacher, was able to brainstorm a variety of strategies for Sofia’s success. “She listed off 20 suggestions,” says Tony, “We were awestruck and felt she really understood.”
It’s Wednesday morning, and 24-year-old Teresa Castillo can hardly contain her excitement as she prepares for another day volunteering at the Pasadena Humane Society’s (PHS) Rabbit Enrichment Program. “The Humane Society is my favorite volunteer site,” Teresa shares. “I like working with the bunnies and helping them do exercise.” As a client in Villa’s Community Integration Program (CIP), Teresa learns valuable job skills through supervised volunteer opportunities with the goal to transition into paid employment. Teresa assists PHS staff with cleaning the rabbits’ housing area, setting up their playpens, and providing them with social interaction and stimulation. Teresa knows to ask supervising staff for guidance along the way—requesting feedback is just one of the valuable employment skills she has gained through participation in CIP.
For the past 46 years, James has been a part of our Villa family. He is regarded as a gentleman, a man of integrity and an overall great guy. He’s kind, caring and friendly. James is respected and admired by those who know him including many lifelong friends and Villa staff. He is not defined by his disabilities, but rather his ability to rise above them. James is representative of thousands of individuals with Down syndrome and other intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) who transcend expectations on a daily basis. When James was born in 1970, services for individuals with I/DD were just starting to take hold. His parents had the foresight to seek early intervention services and enrolled him in Villa’s Infant Center. Starting at the age of six months, the center provided the specialized care and attention that would shape the foundation for his future.
Summer camp: it’s a traditional American experience for lots of kids. For most kids with intellectual/developmental disabilities, it’s not an opportunity that is readily available to them. Enter our heroine, Girl Scout Gold Award candidate Julia in her role as Head Camp Counselor and creator of “Camp Esperanza.” With support from the staff at Villa’s Speech and Language Center, volunteer Julia spent a year planning and putting together all of the elements to create a fun and educational summer camp experience for students at the Villa Esperanza School, most of whom have moderate to severe autism. For four hours a week during summer session, students left their classrooms and gathered around an outdoor picnic table on the school campus that served as camp headquarters. Each camper decorated their own “Camp Esperanza” T-shirt for their camp uniform.
It’s 6:00 a.m. and Greg is on the job at the Burke Williams Day Spa in Old Pasadena. He’s focused on a computerized scheduling system that maps out the spa activity for the day. Greg is pairing therapists with clients, assigning treatment rooms and ensuring that all of the appropriate supplies are on-hand and ready to give each guest a seamless, customized spa experience. Greg is a Villa client, one of several individuals with developmental disabilities who have been given the opportunity to work at the spa. Through Villa’s Employment Services program, our capable adults receive coaching and support to secure and sustain employment with business partners in the community. The Pasadena Burke Williams Spa is an outstanding example of a local business that is not only providing jobs, but also creating promising futures for our clients.
Villa Esperanza Services / 2116 E. Villa Street, Pasadena, CA 91107