By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
In kindergarten, Jake Dameshek was often overwhelmed. According to his mother, Kimberly O’Brien-Young, her autistic son frequently needed his twin brother, Sam, to calm him down. O’Brien–Young loved the bond between her boys, but she also wanted Jake to work toward independence.
It was a long journey, but the students and staff of LBUSD helped Jake make tremendous strides during his 18 years. A student at El Morro Elementary, Thurston Middle School, and Laguna Beach High, Jake was lovingly nurtured and guided through his LBHS graduation in June.
“We do an outstanding job in the district,” retired special education assistant Eleanor Tiner said. “Jake didn’t talk much. He wanted to stay by himself a lot in sixth grade, but we work a lot on socialization which helps our kids grow and develop.”
Jake was still reticent when he began his high school years. Special education teacher Mindy Hawkins said he didn’t want to participate in school dances even though he loved music and dancing. At the beginning of his junior year, Jake finally agreed to show her his dance mimicking the star of the 2004 film “Napoleon Dynamite” and she said she was amazed by his performance.
“He was completely immersed in the character. He knew every move and every nuance,” said Hawkins. She said she told the LBHS dance teacher about his skill and asked Jake to do his dance in the talent show. Despite his nerves, Hawkins said Jake summoned the courage to face his fears and perform in front of his peers.
Hawkins said that when the LBHS students gave Jake a standing ovation, it sparked a transformation. Student Josh Kramer, a longtime friend of Sam and Jake, agreed.
“After the talent show, Jake started stepping out more,” said Josh. “He had more confidence in himself and was able to show everyone who he really was.” In his senior year, Jake was chosen as the LBHS Homecoming King.
“The students at the high school were so caring and loving to him,” his mother said. “They showered him with friendship and protection. It was amazing.”
Buoyed by his peers, Jake kept getting braver and taking additional steps outside of his comfort zone, said Hawkins. He entered a mainstream English class and made contributions to class discussions. He also joined the drama program, something he had been wanting to do for many years.
Jake recently announced that he wants to be a professional singer, dancer, and actor. Musically gifted, he taught himself how to play the drums by watching and listening to other musicians.
A devoted fan of musicals such as “Phantom of the Opera” and rock stars like Elton John and Phil Collins, Jake said he wants to learn how to be a great performer so that he can win Grammys and Oscars.
Although Jake has talents and dreams, his autism made it difficult for his parents to think of sending him off to college like his friends. After searching through various alternative options, they discovered the Pathways Program at UCLA Extension.
Designed for students with intellectual disabilities, Pathways is a two-year program that provides education and vocational training for 20 students each year. Pathways includes residential units so students can learn essential skills such as doing their own laundry and food preparation as they navigate the complexities of life away from their childhood support systems.
Although he’s nervous about being on his own, Jake said he hopes that he and his college roommate can “be each other’s sidekick”, like superheroes. Eric Latham, Director of the Pathway Program, said that Pathways’ residential relationships are often successful because the program spends a lot of time getting to know its applicants during the selection process.
“We make the initial roommate selections. We’re pretty good at identifying relationships that will work,” he said. “We’re also proactive. Each apartment has meetings about ground rules and expectations so that residents are prepared to be successful.”
Now in its 10th year as a residential learning program, Latham said the Pathways program is working well. Approximately 100 students have completed the credential program; of these, 60% are working, 20% are continuing their education or participating in a year-long internship at UCLA Hospital, and 20% are looking for work. These numbers far exceed the national average of workers with intellectual disabilities, which is 30%.
Latham credits the students for this success. “At Pathways, we seek students who are truly motivated and select the ones we believe will be successful. Our students do well because they come in determined to do well.”
Jake is excited to make the move into the supportive Pathways community. But he won’t be without familiar faces. Last year, LBHS student Andrew Arredondo was also admitted to Pathways. Jake’s twin brother, Sam, who works as a professional photographer, often takes jobs in Los Angeles. The boys’ friend Josh will also enroll at UCLA, pursuing a double major in economics and architecture.
“I will definitely see Jake there,” said Josh. “No question about that.”
To raise funds for his Pathways tuition, Jake and his friends decided to make a music video featuring a song by Phil Collins. Josh Kramer plays the guitar in the video, which is part of Jake’s GoFundMe campaign. The boys’ musical efforts were recently profiled on a CBS News segment.
The young actor/musician already seems quite adept at finding sidekicks.
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