Town Crier Holiday Fund: Autism program at CSMA, ALearn, House of Grace

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier A disabled student at the Community School of Music and Arts, right, plays the tambourine.

Now in its 12th year, the Town Crier Holiday Fund continues its mission to support a variety of local non-profit agencies that efficiently and effectively provide goods and resources to the area’s underserved population.

Three Holiday Fund recipients are profiled below. Watch for features on other groups supported by the fund in upcoming issues of the Town Crier.

CSMA’s classes for disabled, autistic

The Community School of Music and Arts serves thousands of students each year, and a small segment of them may benefit most from its programs.

Although CSMA’s developmentally disabled and autistic students total only 64 of the approximately 15,000 people the Mountain View-based non-profit reaches annually, it’s hard to imagine any other group getting more pleasure from the music and art classes.

“In some ways, they are our most appreciative students,” said Linda Covello, director of CSMA’s Art School. “They’re so proud of their work.”

But their appreciation goes beyond learning to play percussion instruments and creating art in an array of media. The change of scenery alone can prove stimulating, as one 16-year-old autistic student explained at the spring showing of their artwork.

“He said he not only loves clay and taking art classes – he loves the whole thing,” Covello recalled. “He loves getting here – the trip – and being in a room with people not in the same school as him and being in a place that does art and music. He loves being in a different environment – it’s important to him.”

Which helps explain why these programs are so important to CSMA. As Covello pointed out, “Our motto is ‘Arts for All’ – that’s our mission – and these students are part of the population that is hard to reach but really benefits from the arts.”

The developmentally disabled and autistic programs serve teenagers to senior citizens who live on the Peninsula and in the South Bay. The students come from the Morgan Autism Center (based in San Jose, formerly in Los Altos), Abilities United (Palo Alto) and AchieveKids (Palo Alto and San Jose).

In collaboration with these organizations, which provide transportation and aides, CSMA offers weekly classes taught by faculty. The developmentally disabled students, whom Covello described as “older in general and a fairly low-functioning group,” take one hour of art and one hour music. Autistic students take 90 minutes of art and an hour of music.

For most students, there’s nothing more rewarding than the annual art show or the musical showcase at the end of each term (nine-week sessions are offered in the fall and spring).

“It’s very exciting for them,” said Covello, who hands out certificates of completion to each student. “I read off their names, and they cry, they applaud – they are so excited to have that recognition.”

Family and friends are invited to the event, which CSMA Music School Director Mary Holmes described as “very low-key, but has become something that they all look forward to.”

A year of music classes for the developmentally disabled and autistic students costs $4,806, while the art classes run $4,095. Students don’t pay a cent, according to Covello, thanks to fundraising by CSMA and the organizations from which they come.

For more information, visit

House of Grace

House of Grace Program Director Honili Sema has heard similar stories before.

Deborah (last name withheld) recalls the events that led to her downward spiral that included a harrowing crack-cocaine addiction and 27 trips to county jail.

There was the death of her father in 1991, followed by the death of her mother a year later. The death of her son, who was born with muscular dystrophy, in 1993 was the last straw.

“I felt like everything in my life was gone,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Why am I even living?’ So my crack addiction took off full force. I lived to get high.”

After a five-week stint in county jail, Deborah went to CityTeam Ministries’ House of Grace program in March 2010 and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life, coming here,” said Deborah, who recently celebrated 20 months of sobriety and now interns at House of Grace, counseling other women in need. “I’m happy today. I love working with the women here. Being able to give to them what was given to me is very rewarding.”

House of Grace provides a 12- to 14-month community-based recovery program that stresses individual accountability, allowing women like Deborah to rebuild their lives and achieve independence, Sema said. Women in the program receive counseling, spiritual guidance and housing support.

The program currently serves 24 women and their children and also offers supportive services, including educational opportunities. One requirement of all participants, Sema said, is gainful employment.

“They have to get a job, otherwise our whole mission will miss the point,” Sema said of the program’s structured steps that stress self-sufficiency.

Like several other non-profit programs, Sema said House of Grace has been negatively impacted by the economy, with a decline in both monetary and in-kind donations in 2011.

Still, Sema added, it’s the courage displayed by the women she serves that keeps her motivated to do more every day.

For more information, visit


When Shellie Rodriguez entered the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District as a freshman three years ago, she was a new student from a different area.

Through ALearn’s Catalyst to High School program, Rodriguez, who will likely be the first in her family to attend college, received a head start in learning the ropes at Los Altos High School. The Catalyst program taught her how to stay organized, take thorough notes and prepare for the jump from middle school to high school.

Before participating in the Catalyst program, Rodriguez would have entered high school placed in pre-algebra. The summer program bumped her up two class levels, enabling her to take geometry as a freshman.

“I definitely feel like I was more prepared for high school,” she said.

The Catalyst program is just one of the Los Altos-based ALearn’s approaches to help underrepresented students attend and succeed in college. The non-profit’s programming aims to increase achievement and raise student aspirations for higher education.

ALearn’s Catalyst, Math Acceleration and Zoomz programs promote students’ confidence by boosting their math skills and enabling them to connect with people they can look up to.

The Math Acceleration Program is an intensive summer enrichment course to bolster incoming middle-schoolers’ competency and confidence in pre-algebra.

Zoomz ( is a social network launched in 2009 for high school and college students who are the first in their families to attend college. Zoomz enables students to share information, insight and encouragement.

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There are three ways to give: Mail donations payable to Silicon Valley Community Foundation (Attn: Town Crier Holiday Fund) to 2440 W. El Camino Real, Suite 300, Mountain View 94040; call 450-5444 to use a credit card; or donate online by visiting

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