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A nonprofit school and therapy center in Buena Park helps students with special needs reach their potential

Joshua Manso, 22, stands in his former classroom at the Speech and Language Development Center.
Joshua Manso, 22, of Long Beach, stands in his former classroom at the Speech and Language Development Center on Tuesday, July 12 in Buena Park. Manso graduated from this center in June 2019 and is currently a student at Cerritos College studying child development.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Joshua Manso is a 22-year-old student attending Cerritos College who plays on the tennis team and carries a 3.4 GPA. But the special-needs adult admits he didn’t always have the easiest time in school. During middle school, his family had a hard time finding the right campus for him.

“I had to go to three different schools,” said Manso. “I was tardy, I was misbehaving.”

When he was 13, his parents found the Speech and Language Development Center in Buena Park, and he began to attend classes there.

“At first I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it, so I was very anxious and angry,” Manso said.

But at SLDC, Manso made some friends, and things began to change. He encountered counselors and teachers he hadn’t had access to at other institutions.

“They taught me coping skills to fight back, like overcoming fear,” Manso said, “and they also taught me life skills for on the job.”

Those skills have served him well as he continues his academic journey. Manso graduated from SLDC in 2019 and moved on to college.

“I had a blast and passed every class,” Manso said of his experience so far at Cerritos College. “I made a lot of new friends over there.”

Manso is thriving not only in his college courses but in extracurricular activities as well.

“When he started at Cerritos, he made the tennis team,” said Manso’s father, Jose Manso. “He is an excellent tennis player.”

July is Disability Pride month, a time to recognize individuals like Manso.

“This is the 32nd year since the Americans with Disability Act was signed by former president George Bush, and really the goal of that legislation was to proved some protection from discrimination for individuals with all different types of disabilities,” said Adrienne Kessler, chief executive officer at Speech and Development Language Center. “And really the focus is we need to not only bring awareness, but let’s also celebrate what each of those individuals have to contribute to our broader society.”

Adrienne Kessler, the chief executive officer of Speech and Language Development Center.
Adrienne Kessler, the chief executive officer of Speech and Language Development Center stands outside SLDC in Buena Park on Tuesday, July 12.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The goal of Disability Pride month is to celebrate and recognize the individual contribution of people with disabilities and their unique traits, a long-term goal at SLDC.

The center was founded in 1955, by two speech therapists, Dr. Aleen Agranowitz and Gladys Gleason, who met while working at the VA hospital in Long Beach. The women came together initially helping veterans who were suffering from trauma.

“At that time, they were the first in the field who really looked at individuals with a variety of disabilities and saw more,” said Kessler.

Agranowitz and Gleason began treating people at their home and then local churches before opening the center in 1979.

“It started out doing therapy, and then they recognized that there just weren’t enough schools that were dedicated to helping children with all different types of abilities.”

Today SLDC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, accredited by the California State Department of Education, licensed by the California State Department of Social Services and Community Care Licensing and a member of both the California Assn. of Private Special Education Schools and the National Assn. of Private Special Education Centers.

“A lot of schools or programs in the special education or disability services industry really subscribe to maybe one type of methodology,” said Kessler. “One of the things that SLDC has always put first is meeting the child where they are at and taking a truly interdisciplinary approach.”

Which means students like Manso have a chance for all their needs to be met.

“One of the major things was counseling,” said Manso. “My other schools didn’t have counseling that was able to cope with me.”

The school serves students from kindergarten through transition and also offers an adult day program for individuals age 22 to 40. The therapy center offers speech, occupational and physical therapy along with counseling and social skills, behavior intervention, augmentative and alternative communication and assistive technology.

Kessler says Manso is a great example of SLDC’s mission to nurture growth and help students maximize their potential. “I love working with individuals like Josh and having that chance to co-create and make sure that they have opportunities,” said Kessler.

Alumnus Joshua Manso, left, and Adrienne Kessler of the Speech and Language Development Center.
Alumnus Joshua Manso, left, and Adrienne Kessler of the Speech and Language Development Center, stand outside SLDC in Buena Park on Tuesday, July 12.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Manso’s major is child development and he is also gifted in mathematics, statistics in particular. He said he isn’t sure where his journey will take him next.

“There are so many paths I can think of,” Manso said. “My future is focusing on graduating from college.”

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