Alhambra City Hall
Michael Dergar’s day job is a special education instructor at Alhambra High School, but on his own time he has created a virtual academy for students with special needs. During the month of September, disabled artists from around the country affiliated with his Academy of Special Dreams will display their artwork at Alhambra City Hall. The Alhambra Source spoke with Dergar about how he built his project via the Internet and the challenges for special needs students in Alhambra.
What inspired you to create the Academy of Special Dreams?
The inspiration came at a very young age. I am originally from Mazatlan, a city in Sinaloa, Mexico. As a little kid I would go out and play with the children of my neighborhood, I remember that one of my neighbors would never go out because he was physically handicapped. I would always see him looking out the window wishing he could join us. It was then that I decided that I wanted to make a difference for this young boy, and bring awareness to the special needs community.
What would you say are the major differences in the treatment of special needs people in Mexico and the United States?
Unfortunately in Mexico almost all of the disabled community is isolated. The society does not allow them to integrate back into the community, especially when it comes to the educational field. Here in the States the government sometimes allocates resources or opens programs for special needs students, but in Mexico programs are extremely scarce.
From your collaboration with the parents of special need students, what have you noticed are their major concerns and what would you recommend to them?
First of all I’ve noticed that parents feel discriminated against and isolate themselves from the community. They are in fact seeking help, they want to help their child to integrate into society, but no one is willing to hire, or much less be responsible for someone with special needs. My advice to parents would be to encourage their special child to dream. From my experience I have learned that all a special needs student requires to succeed is support and encouragement.
You have a great diversity of student participants, how is it that you find them all and help them in their artistic hopes?
The website itself is most to thank for that. We have made it very easy for anyone from anywhere in the country to contact us and allow us to help them. We understand that often times it is the disability itself that prevents them from moving around, so all that we ask is that they send us pictures, poems or whatever they choose. Then we can upload them into their own private gallery that we create for them. People often times think that helping the less fortunate is a very complicated and involved process but it can actually be very simple.
What can someone do to support the Academy of Special Dreams?
Unfortunately, as a result of the statewide budget cuts, we have seen a huge decrease in the money that we receive to help the students and so any sort of financial contribution would be very helpful. The situation is very sad. I feel the special needs program at the Alhambra Unified School District, for example, has a lot of potential and it’s tragic that the special educational programs are often the first to be cut. That is why we are very grateful to the Woo Education Foundation for its ongoing support.
What do you like best about the Academy of Special Dreams?
What I find most rewarding is that the special needs students can use this Academy as a way to feel like a true artist, which they are, and not have to feel limited by their disabilities. We never enforce a standard to their art or edit their pieces — it’s all there.
“Vive the Special DREAM Art Exhibition” will be in the Alhambra City Hall Lobby for the month of September. The exhibition will feature original paintings, photographs and other works by 15 different artists with disabilities from all around the United States.
For more information about the Academy of Special Dreams, contact Jerry J. Ruiz, Director of Administration, at JJR@specialacademy.org
This interview has been edited and condensed.