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Give Up? Not This Winner : Education: Brenda Premo was born an albino and is legally blind. Her accomplishments earn her a national honor.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early in her life, some schoolmates made fun of Brenda Premo.

She is very pale--an albino. She also can barely see and is classified as legally blind. In elementary school special-education classes, Premo said she received no encouragement. She was simply viewed as a handicapped person, and not much was expected of her.

“I could have ended up as a person assembling brooms,” Premo said.

But thanks to an education at Golden West College, Premo became a success story. For the past 13 years, she has been executive director of the Anaheim-based Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled.

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In 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the National Council on Disability. Last summer, President Bush invited her to the White House for the signing of a major bill designed to help the disabled. Political insiders in Sacramento say that Premo will soon be appointed a deputy director in the state Department of Rehabilitation, which provides funds for programs serving the disabled in California.

And next month, Premo goes to Kansas City to be honored as one of the nation’s most outstanding community college alumni by the American Assn. of Community and Junior Colleges.

Each year, community colleges in the nation nominate one of their distinguished graduates for the honor. This year, the national group singled out seven people who have shown “outstanding contributions in a chosen field of endeavor at the national or international level.”

Golden West College President Judith Valles, who nominated Premo, said she certainly fits the bill. “We are proud of Brenda and the service she provides to the community, state and nation,” Valles said.

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Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder also praised Premo. “She is a wonderful role model,” Wieder said. “Not only does she have the courage of her convictions, but she also has political acumen. She knows how to achieve her goals and to effect legislation to change situations.”

As head of a nonprofit organization, Premo cannot lobby for legislation. But she lets the community at large, including leaders in Washington and Sacramento, know about the needs of the handicapped.

“We provide education,” Premo said.

The Dayle McIntosh Center also provides help for deaf people so that they can learn to live on their own. The center dispatches interpreters for the deaf in medical emergencies, teaches police about the special needs of the handicapped and provides emergency shelter for homeless disabled persons. The center, operating on a combination of public and private funds, has a $1.1-million annual budget and serves about 2,200 persons a year.

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Premo said her elementary school teachers probably did not envision her heading an operation of that size. “We were just taught that we were handicapped and taught to survive,” she said.

It wasn’t until Premo enrolled in Golden West that she came to believe that she could become a college graduate. “Classes here at Golden West taught me that I could go on and get a degree,” Premo said. “I had some great teachers here.”

Premo, 39, was born in Long Beach but has lived in Orange County since the seventh grade. She has the genetic condition known as albinism, in which a person lacks melanin, the substance that allows skin to tan as a natural defense against the sun. Albinism is often accompanied by vision problems.

“The eye problem I have can’t be corrected with glasses,” Premo said.

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Though Premo is an active, fun-loving woman who laughs often in talking about her life, she is quick to point out that albinism has left a searing imprint on her life.

“I always stood out,” she said.

Premo said her early special-education classes neither inspired nor challenged her.

“In the seventh grade, I decided to go into regular education,” she recalled.

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She then attended Huntington Beach’s Marina High, graduating in 1970. “I was encouraged by a teacher at Marina to go for higher education, but I still wasn’t certain I could make it in college,” she said. “Golden West was an essential bridge for me, because I didn’t think I was smart enough for college.”

Premo said that Golden West so buoyed her confidence that a year later she transferred to Cal State Long Beach. She graduated from there in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and earned a master’s in business administration from Pepperdine University in 1988.

In the late 1970s, Premo took a minimum-wage job with Orange County government, helping to teach preschool, handicapped children. She so impressed county officials with her abilities that they enlisted her help in designing a new center to help disabled persons in Orange County to be more independent. The result was the Dayle McIntosh Center, which Premo has headed since 1977.

“Brenda is one of the most remarkable people I’ve every worked with, and she’s a tireless worker on behalf of issues affecting the disabled,” said U.S. Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim). “She deserves all of the recognition and praise for her hard, hard work, her performance and her accomplishments.”

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Over the years, she has won many honors, including being selected Woman of the Year by the California Legislature in 1988.

But she said the national community college accolade is special because of the role community college has played in her life.

Standing in the garden-like campus of Golden West College, Premo smiled radiantly as she recalled her student days. “If this hadn’t been here for me, I couldn’t have gone on to a college degree,” she said. “This is a beautiful place. I love it.”


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