“Do you want to see a special place?”
Recently retired Garfield Elementary principal Jessica Mele remembers asking Assemblyman Jim Patterson this question in February of 2015 when he came to the school for a visit.
Intrigued, the legislator followed Mele into the Garfield Special Education Center.
The next two hours had a profound impact on Patterson and his staff.
The students in the center are diagnosed with a variety of severe physical and intellectual disabilities and are too medically fragile to attend school at a comprehensive site in Clovis Unified.
“Sometimes we ask ourselves, ‘Would a loving God allow this?’ ” Patterson said Sept. 13 when he returned to the center to present a grant award. “I discovered something here that helped me to answer that, because not only was there education going on, there was sympathy, there was empathy, there was love. These very special kids show us what love really is. Their challenges provide us opportunities to turn our love for them into something tangible.”
Patterson presented a $5,000 check on behalf of the Barona Board of Mission Indians. He nominated the school for the community grant after his visit last year.
The money will be used to start a library inside the center that caters to the needs of the special education students.
“I hope this is seed money, that it’s the beginning of some wonderful things here,” Patterson said to a crowd of district administrators, board members, students, parents and teachers.
“This is a very special thing for a very special place,” said Mele, who found out right before she retired that Garfield would receive the grant.
Patterson also presented Mele with a proclamation that honored her 24 years of service before her retirement.
“This is the way for the California legislature to say thank you for all that you’ve done … and your professionalism in your craft,” he said.
Special education teacher Beth Ray said her students do not visit the Garfield library because of their medical conditions and cumbersome wheelchairs. She is excited and grateful that the center will soon house its own library.
“This way they’ll be able to have access to books and videos, right in their own complex,” she said. “We’re not only getting books that can be read to them, but also movies and music.
The library can also be used by the students’ peer buddies — kids from Garfield, Alta Sierra Intermediate and Buchanan High schools who visit on their recess and lunch breaks to help out.
“The interaction is a positive experience for everyone who is involved,” said Anne Castillo, the district’s program specialist.
That positivity was palpable.
Joy radiated from Anabelle Aguilar’s crinkly eyed smile as she interacted with 18-year-old Austin Guizar, who responded from his wheelchair with an equally gleeful grin.
Anabelle, a sixth grade Garfield student, volunteers during her recesses in the high school classroom at the special education center.
“I know it helps the kids just to interact with them, but it also helps me because I get a chance to work with them, and I like it. We read books, we do arts and crafts with them; sometimes we do hand-over-hand,” she said.
For the past 12 years, Garfield Special Education Center and its team of dedicated staff members have served its students’ unique needs.
“Here at the center we celebrate the growth of our students every single day,” Castillo said. “Our staff assists our students with tasks such as tracking movement with their eyes, responding to textures placed on their skin, activating a head or a handswitch.
The center is certainly unique, Castillo said, as it serves medically fragile students from the entire district under one roof.
Castillo, whose older brother, Bobby, was severely disabled and passed away 22 years ago, also oversees 15 classes for the severely disabled across the district.
“Most of the students are at comprehensive sites because, to the maximum extent possible, we want our students to be with their same-age peers,” she said.
Each of the Garfield center’s three classrooms has at least one licensed vocational nurse, up to eight students and numerous staff members.
Hospital beds take up much of the space in the middle and high school rooms.
California Children’s Services, a county-run medical therapy office, is under the same roof as the special education center.
“During their appointments we push them right over for occupational therapy and physical therapy,” Castillo said.
Students attend the center based on doctors’ orders. Some may come all day while others attend for just a couple of hours, Castillo said.
Other kids are too medically fragile to leave their homes — so the instructors come to them, Castillo said.
“We serve all of our students who reside in this district,” Castillo said. “Every single one of them.”