My journey started over twenty years ago when I was a novice mom trying to learn how to advocate for my two special needs children diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities. At first, I thought the public-school system would provide all the necessary supports to help my sons access grade level curriculum. That was not the case for me. It took me a little less than a year, and several Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, for me to realize that it was the school’s budget that took precedence over my children’s education. An IEP is a vehicle that is used to establish goals and objectives for a child needing supports beyond what the general education classroom can provide.
Back then, as a novice mom I had no idea what all the acronyms meant during the IEP meetings as the teachers were discussing both my son’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, it seemed that the weakness overpowered any strengths they may have had. It was very depressing and intimidating. There were services offered but not always the appropriate ones for my sons to make progress. It got to the point where I had to hire an attorney and initiate several due processes against the second largest school district in the nation. These due processes took about eight years to resolve, and during that period of time I had the most difficult challenges as a wife, a business partner, a mother, and somehow became “a paralegal in training” in the midst of all of that.
Little did I know that my due processes would run into a seven-digit lawsuit over time. I am a middle-class mom running a construction business with my husband. We did not have that kind of money. All I wanted was “justice for Jonathan and Omar Jr.”. That stress caused chaos in my marriage, business and my children were left on hold until the lawsuits were resolved.
I prayed for all of the stress, hurt, tears, and pain to stop. It took many years before our life was in some order. We prevailed with the lawsuits, but my marriage dissolved, Jonathan received the help he needed, and Omar Jr. received the help he needed the last day of High School prior to his graduation. Too little too late for him. I was faced asking myself was it worth it – the sacrifice? Today I look at both my grown sons Jonathan 28 years old and Omar Jr. 30 years old, and I am beyond proud of them!
After losing everything I wanted to do something so that no family will endure the extreme financial and emotional burden my family did, and no child should be sacrificed the way my children were. I decided to form The Jonathan Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities (TJF), a 501 © (3), a Private Nonprofit to help families whom have special needs children navigate this national broken special education system. TJF helps parents with advocacy and raises money to fund Psychoeducational assessments that test in the areas of; social, emotional, behavioral, academic and cognitive domains.
Helping these families bought the warmest smile to my heart in connecting with the parents and telling them “that I was them once”. I try to empower the children and let them know I am their “advocate” and I am their “voice”. I read the psychoeducational assessments and understand them, the way they learn, the way “their brain is wired”.
This year I was blessed to be named one of ten extraordinary women as the 2019 L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth. I attended the gala in New York City on December 4th. The power of L’Oreal Paris is amazing, and through them I received the priceless gift of Ms. Arianna Huffington who was honoring me at the gala, and her sister Ms. Agapi Stassinopoulos – two rare jewels. Imagine me sitting at the same table with those to powerful and influential women. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have seen that coming.
I was asked to go to the podium and present. After my speech I could not believe how many people put their hands out to shake mine and congratulate me as I walked back to my table. During intermission there were so many people that came to see me and tell me of their personal struggles with the school system and their special needs children. They were in tears, crying holding my hand and hugging me as they told me about their children’s challenges with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia and other learning disabilities. There were people that told me they are adults struggling with ADHD, learning disabilities and were never identified growing up. They felt compelled to share their stories. I did not know any of them.
There was one woman, Phyllis S. Quinlan, who approached me and told me “although the nonprofits here are all worthy, they are not the reason I am here, you are! I came to meet you.” She hugged me as her tears rolled down her face telling me she was told she would never graduate high school, and went on to say she is now a PHD, RN-BC. At that moment the reality of what I am doing for families hit home with me. I was not just impacting children’s lives, but also the adults that have gone through life without being identified with a disability. They have suffered silently throughout their schooling and life in general. I felt a sense of calm and peace overcome me….peace none other like it because that is the reality of the return in giving from your soul.
Learning disabilities are invisible disabilities because they cannot be seen on the exterior of the individual. It is the interior struggles that are hidden and need to become visible.
Believe in the unbelief – everything is possible with God, and things always happen for a reason.
The Jonathan Foundation website
California Special Needs Law Group – Podcast Interview with Raja Marhaba
Documentary on Raja Marhaba and her work with The Jonathan Foundation (Compliments of L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth)