CREST’s founders consists of educators specializing in special needs learning, including experience in the classroom and school administration.
Dawn O’Connor, Executive Director
Dawn’s interest in the field of speech pathology began in High School when she met her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Donna. Donna had a severe articulation problem, to the extent that she was often unintelligible. Because of this, Donna was ridiculed and thought to be “retarded”. Other than basic therapy, at that time little was known about underlying causes of speech and language difficulties. Dawn’s desire to become a speech pathologist was cemented while attending Humboldt State College when a new program was added to the curriculum. She combined that major with an elementary education credential. Following graduation from Humboldt and a move to the Orange area, Dawn re-enrolled in a Master’s level program at California State College, Fullerton. While completing her internship hours in Speech Pathology she was assigned to gain clinical hours and experience in a program in Anaheim, CA. It was there that she met her mentor, Aleen Agranowitz. One of her first assignments was working with a group of non-verbal children in a modified classroom program and her fate was sealed! Dawn gave up the idea of working with children with articulation problems and became involved in providing therapy to children with significant speech, language and behavior problems. In 1964, she became a full-time staff member in that program and started one of the first school programs designed for students who were un-diagnosed except for acknowledging that their difficulties were not related to simple articulation errors but rather to more basic underlying communication problems.
Dawn has completed a Master’s level and credential program in Educational Administration at the University of LaVerne. She has presented seminars in the language/learning techniques in a variety of venues in California, has co-taught in university level programs, and has chaired professional workshops. Her ongoing interest and passion is in improving the quality of programs and services offered to students with communication and behavioral challenges, continuing to expand her own knowledge about the challenges faced by her students, and assisting parents in assuring that the individual needs of their children are being met. Dawn’s inspiration comes from the daily opportunities of watching children demonstrate “I can” rather than “I can’t” and seeing staff expand their skills and expertise so that their students can reach their maximum potential. Her philosophy remains that each student is an individual and needs to have their uniqueness recognized by each person in their environment. As educators our position is to provide the tools and supports that our students need so that they can truly maximize their potential.
Malena Clements, Director of Education
Malena Clements’ interest in working with kids developed when she was very young. She always dreamed of working with kids but was unsure where that dream would lead her. As a child, she observed her father, a physician, and her mother, a nurse as they assisted their patients during their sometimes long road to recovery. Every day after completing her homework, she spent time with their patients at the hospital and that experience inspired her to make helping others her life’s work.
She started college with a major in Communicative Disorders. This soon changed when one of her assignments was to take data on the speech patterns of a student with special needs. This led her to a special education school and therapy center that changed her life. The Speech and Language Development Center was a place where students with special needs were treated with respect and the staff worked collaboratively with one another. The very next day she changed her major to Child Development so that she could become a Special Education Teacher.
During her undergraduate studies, Malena continued to volunteer to work with students with special needs. This experience included working in a special education classroom, a social skills program and the Special Olympics. After receiving her Bachelor’s Degree, Malena earned her Education Specialist credential and her dedication and concern for the students she worked with as a college student resulted in a job offer. Her first job was teaching a special education class. She found the work tremendously rewarding and was able to improve many lives over the 11 years she spent in the classroom. During that time she returned to school and acquired a Master’s in Special Education. Her experience on the job combined with what she learned in her graduate program prepared her to help other teachers to develop their skills.
She was promoted to administrator which allowed her to mentor teachers, therapists and paraprofessionals. Her overriding goal was always to provide the best care to students and as a supervisor she was able to develop strategies and guide others in implementing them. This was extremely rewarding because she was able to magnify her impact on the lives of children with special needs. Malena worked as a Vice-Principal for a Mild/Moderate Program for nine years and was Preschool Director for eight years.
Malena is married and has a beautiful seven year old girl. When she is not working, Malena enjoys reading, riding her bike, and spending time with her family. She also sits on the board of a non-profit organization that assists those afflicted with epilepsy.
Gina Prado, Director of Behavior Services
Gina Prado’s interest in working with the hearing impaired began when she was young. She became friends with two hearing impaired girls that lived on her street, which prompted her to volunteer for many activities at Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired. This early experience led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Communicative Disorders at Cal State Fullerton. After graduating, she volunteered at Speech and Language Development Center (SLDC), a school for students with special needs. That experience convinced her that her calling was in the classroom. She knew she wanted to teach. Gina decided to return to school to earn a Multiple Subjects teaching credential from Cal State Long Beach, along with credentials for Severely Handicapped and Learning Handicapped. Her early volunteer work turned into employment at SLDC where she had positions of increasing responsibilities – from aide, to teacher, to administrator.
Feeling that it was important to continue studying and learning, Gina acquired a Master’s in Counseling to help her understand students’ needs and improve her ability to assist and support staff and parents. Gina then earned her Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to make sense of students’ behavior and assist teachers working with students who have behavioral concerns. Her BCBA also allowed her to help parents work with their children to provide positive reinforcement and behavior management at home and in the community. In 2015, Gina obtained her Administrative Credential to continue growing as an educational leader.
Gina finds her work extremely rewarding. “To meet a new student who is non-verbal and see them progress in acquiring speech and language ability is so incredible. At first, just saying a word is a major accomplishment and we celebrate every triumph along the way. To work with a child that others have given up on and watch them develop the ability to communicate and become a part of the world they live in is the greatest reward imaginable."
Harriet Hasson, Board Member
For Harriet Hasson, helping children with special needs comes naturally. Her experience growing up with a father who had challenges set the stage for a lifelong career. Her father was deaf in one ear and had a lisp. Though the impairment was not debilitating, it did affect his life. This experience led her to look at others who were facing more serious challenges with understanding and compassion.
In school, Harriet always offered friendship and a helping hand to classmates who were struggling with learning, behavior challenges or were just labeled by others as "different, weird". Harriet's interest in helping others led her to study speech and hearing therapy in college and to pursue graduate studies in deafness and autism. Harriet received an M. Ed. with high honors from Northeastern University in Boston.
Harriet always says that her real education began 40 years ago when she walked into her classroom and saw eight students staring at her waiting for her to instruct them. She feels she learns something from every student that she has the pleasure to work with. Her secret to reaching them and improving their life is to make sure each and every child feels that they are of value, can learn anything and will be treated like any other child without a disability. Working at the Speech and Language Development Center for 30 years under Aleen Agranowitz's mentorship afforded Harriet the privilege to help children that others had given up on. Her mottos are comfort, trust and high expectations. With these components in place, anything is possible.