Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Raja Marhaba, who was a 2019 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Award winner. Each year L’Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize and celebrate Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. Ten honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause, and an online vote determines one honoree who will receive an additional $25,000 grant. Nominations for 2020 are open! If you know a woman who works to create lasting and significant change in her community, nominate her to be one of the 2020 Women of Worth.
In 2001, Raja Marhaba began a long and tiresome fight against the Los Angeles Unified School District in order to obtain the services needed for her two sons who have learning disabilities. Almost two decades later, her fight for her own kids may be finished, but her fight for the betterment of children with learning disabilities and special needs everywhere is nowhere near over.
When her public school district wouldn’t provide the education plan that her children Jonathan and Omar Jr. needed for their disabilities, Raja was forced to sue the LAUSD. She ultimately won her case, but only after her children’s education was put on hold, her finances had been deeply hurt and her marriage broken. She vowed to never let another family go through what she went through in order to obtain an appropriate public education. As a result, she started The Jonathan Foundation — a nonprofit that provides assistance, private assessments and advocacy for families navigating the special education system. Since 2014, over 300 children have been helped by The Jonathan Foundation’s assessments and Raja’s pro bono advocacy work.
“I’m just a mom who got hurt,” Raja said, “and I want to give back because I don’t want families to suffer like my family suffered, as really as black and white as that is. No gray area.”
What lead you to starting The Jonathan Foundation?
Jonathan Foundation was formed in 2001 because of my trials and tribulations with the public school system trying to get special education services for both of my children. Both of my children are diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities. They are described as twice exceptional, highly gifted and learning disabled. Imagine having an IQ over 145, and you’re severely dyslexic and can’t read, and this starts from one, two, three, four [or] five-years-old. You’re this little body. You know you’re very smart but you can’t express yourself, and you see your peers advancing. You start to have behavioral problems because you want to have the teacher tell you it’s ok, and it’s not happening. I tried to get services for both my children and it was very difficult. The school system would not be collaborative for both children and I ended up suing LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District]. It took eight years. Each kid started with one lawsuit which was amended three times, and that’s how you ended up having four due processes for each child. They took us to Ninth Circuit Federal Court in an effort not to provide services. It put my family through a financial burden, emotional burden. My kids were placed on hold until the lawsuits were over with and finalized with some sort of resolve.
After that experience, I did not want any family to go through the excruciating pain financially, emotionally. My marriage was broken. When a family tries to raise special needs children, it’s very challenging. Then when you have a typical child, you tend to neglect the typical child, not because you want to, but because the special needs child is taking so much of you to raise. Then how much money do families make, if it’s a single parent or two parents together trying to make money. You’re going to work, you’re coming home, you’re dealing with the school, you’re dealing with services, you’re dealing with the lack of services. You have a child who has various disabilities, anywhere from verbal, non-verbal, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities. It could be draining on the marriage and on the family. These children need assessments. They need diagnosis. They need services. They need therapies. If you could just imagine the situation in a family with this type of a scenario. That’s what my family went through and I don’t believe that any family should have to pay the high price that my family did to have to get services. No children should be sacrificed for free and appropriate public education, which is what the schools are supposed to provide when you put them in public schools.
Describe what The Jonathan Foundation does.
In 2014, I started an assessment scholarship program. I realized going through the trials and tribulations with the school districts, as I did with my own two children, that the lawyers kept on telling me we need speech and language assessment, we need a psycho-educational assessment. A psycho-educational assessment covers social, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and academic domains. In addition to that, there could be coexisting issues going on or challenging the child. It might be speech and language. It might be occupational therapy. It might be assistive technology where they need software and hardware technology to access their grade level curriculum. It’s very costly. If you’re going to add maybe $3,000 or $3,500 for a speech evaluation, $2,000 for an assistive technology evaluation, $5,000 for a psycho-educational evaluation — that’s almost $10,000 dollars, just for evaluations, and we haven’t started therapy. You have parents working to pay bills and trying to make ends meet. That’s where it stresses the marriage out, which is exactly what happened to me, to my family.
We developed a psycho-educational assessment program to asses the domains I just said — social, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and academic. We hire highly credentialed assessors and they do the assessment with the children. They write a report that could be anywhere from 20 to 40 pages. … With that report, the psychologist comes up with a diagnosis which school districts cannot diagnose, and they give recommendations. That’s valuable information that the parent can take back to the school districts and request services based on the recommendations of the assessor. In addition to that, we ask the assessors to attend the two hour IEP meeting with the school district. An IEP meeting is an Independent Educational Planning meeting. It’s like a negotiation where you say, “Here’s the child, here’s the assessment, here’s what we feel is going on on the parents side,” and the school is saying, “Well, here’s our assessments and here’s what we feel is going on with it.” When you bring in a high-level, credentialed psychologist that can back up the report that they wrote on the child, and now you have a psychologist [along with] the school psychologist, it’s a game changer. You’re able to negotiate and facilitate a meeting trying to get services for the child, in the best interests of the child, in a collaborative manner.
Can you explain why having this type of educational support is important for kids with learning disabilities?
There are so many children in middle and high school who either get in trouble or they end up going to continuation school in high school. Those children may have never had special education, may have never been assessed, may have fallen through the cracks. We give them the label of bad kids when maybe they’re not bad kids. Because we label them as bad kids, they end up on the streets, with the gangs, with drugs, and they end up in a very bad environment. My belief is that if you can assess these children as young as possible, you can find out their strengths and deficits, and you can zone in to them and you can address their weaknesses and challenges. If you can do that, then you can literally save a child’s life.
For example, Jonathan, my dyslexic one, he always got into trouble. He was very hyper. He was very out there with the children, very extroverted, different than his brother. Nobody understood he was dyslexic. He didn’t understand he was dyslexic, until he was tested and then we figured out where the behaviors were coming from. That happens with every child. If a child is showing behavior, there’s a reason for that behavior and you will not know what that reason is unless you’ve assessed. Granted, you have to take family components and situations and environment into the factor as well, but without looking at the big picture, you will never understand what the child is going through. Whether you’re a parent who doesn’t have a child with special needs, or you’re a parent who does have a child with special needs, those parents need to look for the red flags. One teacher told me when my kids used to be in private school when they were very, very young, that Jonathan needed to go into public school at the age of five. She realized he was in trouble and she could not help him in the private school. She said, “Mrs. Marhaba, I’m going to give you one piece of advice. When you leave the private school to go to the public school, you are your children’s best advocate. Nobody knows your children better than you.” Those words have never left me up until today. I give that advice to every parent who I see. When I tell them that, they can connect with me. They go, “You know, you’re right. I knew there was a feeling and I couldn’t pinpoint it, and no one believed me, and look what happened to my child.”
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The children. When I see the success in the children, and I see the parents happy, and when I meet with the children. I’m pretty well versed with the assessments. I understand what the data means and the assessments that psychologists administer on these children. I could look at the data and I can see a child and I can tell the child exactly what the deficits are, what the struggles are in school, without the child saying anything to me. I connect immediately. Then I can teach the parents how to understand what the scores mean, because they do and they don’t. They’ll go to the psychologist, they’ll tell them the data, and then they walk out and they’re so overwhelmed that they forget what the data meant and what the psychologist said. Then once the parent understands how the brain is wired for the child — our trademark is ‘How are you wired?’ for a reason — then the parent understands the weaknesses and the strengths of the child and can communicate better with the child. If the child understands his or her own strength and weaknesses, then the child is not kicking themselves in the butt that they can’t do it. They can have a better understanding of why they can’t do it. … When I finally see the child connecting and progressing in school, and the parent connecting and understanding the child, now we just created a mother-father-child relationship that is more understanding prior to them meeting with me and learning what I’m teaching with them. I like to empower the parents. I don’t want them to be codependent on me because I’m not going to be around forever, and these parents need to move on with their children.
Then over and above that, I have both my kids, both my young men, mentor children. If I see a child struggling with dyslexia, I ask Jonathan to speak with the child. If I tell a child [with dyslexia] I know what you’re going through, I really don’t know what that child is going through, but Jonathan can connect because he walked in that child’s footsteps and he knows what’s going on. The same thing with my son Omar Jr. He has reading comprehension, vocabulary and writing deficits. If I have a child where that’s a deficit area for them, a weakness, I ask my son, “Can you talk to this child and help him understand that it’s not him, that’s just the way his brain is wired, tell them your story?” … That’s what really drives me, the success I’ve seen in these children. I go through them middle, elementary, high school, even college. They’re on my Facebook. They communicate with me. These children, I love them as if they were my own flesh and blood, because I get attached to them. I know personally what that entire family component is going through.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
I’m trying to establish relationships with the police out here. [The Los Angeles Police Department] had offered me 355 juveniles to assess, because they need to be identified to see exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are, acclimate them back into the school systems, get them out of the prisons, and do something positive with their lives. My hope is to establish a partnership. If I could start it in California and Los Angeles, I could replicate it nationally. I want to do a pilot program out here in California where there is a collaboration between the school police, LAPD, and between The Jonathan Foundation, and see if we can come up with a plan to assess these juveniles and get them the help they need and acclimate them back into the school system. Maybe give them the confidence they were lacking, so they can feel good about themselves. A lot of them end up in jails because if they have a learning disability that has never been identified, they’re going to think they’re stupid. No one told them, no one assessed them, no one showed them. That’s part of my mission of what I would like to see moving forward.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
To never give up. I went through hell, literally hell, raising my kids and trying to navigate the school system. It wears and tears your marriage. It wears and tears your family. No matter what, you got to keep pushing through. If you give up on your kids because you’re tired or your marriage is broken, then you just lost souls. I’m trying to save souls. I saved my two children. I saved two souls by sacrificing me, because my marriage did break. Our finances did hurt. But I saved two children. So if my sacrifice was to save my sons by fighting the school systems to the level that I did, then had I given up, they would have been the kids in [Juvenile Detention] I’m talking about now that I would love to help. You can’t give up. It’s very, very emotional and very stressful for these families.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
We’re born for a purpose. I’m not sure that everyone knows what their purpose in life is. Had I not gone through the trials and tribulations within my own family component and the school district, I would maybe never know what my purpose in life is. For every suffering, even with Covid, there’s got to be goodness coming out of it. Covid, even as bad as it is, there’s a lot of positive things coming out. People are helping people. People are reaching out. People are caring. People are suffering in the same manner. People are making homemade masks to help others. … If we don’t help each other and we don’t love each other, whether it’s nationally or globally, we don’t have a fighting chance. Covid has affected everybody globally. If we can unite and do something as a whole, and not compete with each other, and partner up with other organizations to make a difference for the better of human kind — then that’s our purpose in life. Then we would live in a better world.
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