Laguna Beach High School senior Celestina De Leon received accolades from the school board Tuesday for seeking one of 60 slots statewide for students with disabilities to participate in the California Youth Leadership Forum, which was held in July.
Celestina applied independently after learning about the forum through a teacher and her own research. “I thought it might be a good experience,” said the high school’s only wheelchair-bound student. As she reported to the school board, the skills she learned and friendships that bloomed exceeded her expectations.
With her movement severely restricted by a condition called “undiagnosed congenital myopathy,” Celestina became, by necessity, a pioneer for wheelchair accessibility in Laguna’s schools. Already her own advocate, she expects to put her newly acquired knowledge to good use by assisting the school’s workability specialist to pave a smoother path for other disabled students.
During a poised and articulate presentation to the board, Celestina described the forum as a liberating experience. At first participants were reticent, but as they shared experiences and compared notes, they gradually dropped their inhibitions and learned valuable lessons from each other as well as from the 12-hour days of workshops and seminars, she said.
In the end, each participant established their own “Personal Leadership Plan” for their education and career goals. Celestina’s plans include college on the east coast, a goal that feels nearer since she met another wheelchair-bound California student at the forum who already attends American University.
Celestina navigated a difficult path through school, literally. She had to continually remind administrators to keep elevators unlocked so that she could get to certain classes, for example. She admits to low points, when simply getting to class could be a greater challenge than a tough homework assignment. But she persevered, and that is her advice to future disabled students. She emphasized the importance of being proactive and persistent in advocating for oneself. “Don’t feel bad about asking for the things you need to get through the day,” she said.
A victim of sometimes being judged too quickly (some people have suggested she fakes her disability because she has a limited ability to stand and walk), Celestina turns the negative experience into a positive lesson: don’t judge by appearances. “I’ve come to understand that people don’t always understand,” she said.
“I have known Celestina for many years, and she is a remarkable student and an outstanding leader,” said high school principal Joanne Culverhouse. “Her generosity and positive attitude are contagious. She is extremely deserving of this recognition.”
“We are so proud of our girl!” agreed Irene White, director of special education, who said that she looks forward to working closely with Celestina to remove obstacles to disabled students in the schools and improve their experience.
The Youth Leadership Forum is a cooperative project that includes a myriad of agencies and committees, including the California Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, Department of Education, State Independent Living Council, and Friends of Californians with Disabilities, Inc.