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High Hopes : 'Impossible' Not in Dictionaries at University for Gifted Retarded

April 23, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . ."

Listen, please.

Danny McNet has something he needs to say. Bear with me, his eyes seem to plead, don't turn away so fast. This is important; you have to hear me. The look on his face makes it clear that nobody could ever be as frustrated with his severe speech impediment as he is.

"Time to go back to class, Danny," says a voice across the room. He keeps at it.

"I . . . I . . . I, excuse me," he says, managing to get out complete words just long enough to apologize. With a dozen false starts for every word, he struggles on.

He is proud of what he has accomplished so far in life, he is able to say after a few minutes. His job with a salvage company in Fullerton. The possibility of going into business with some friends. For a young man with multiple handicaps--he must deal with mental retardation as well as the speech problem--Danny is a success.

"But . . . I . . . want . . . to . . . grab . . . for . . . bigger . . . things," he says, wrestling with every syllable, grimacing involuntarily over some words as if the process causes him physical pain. "I . . . don't . . . just . . . want . . . to . . . be . . . known . . . as . . . some . . . person . . . that . . . collected . . . off . . . of . . . Social . . . Security . . . and . . . SSI . . . all . . . his . . . life.

"The . . . biggest . . . dream . . . I . . . have . . . is . . . to . . . be . . . a . . . singer . . . and . . . a . . . songwriter. I'm . . . going . . . to . . . have . . . a . . . career . . . in . . . music. I . . . don't . . . care . . . if . . . it's . . . a . . . short . . . career . . . or . . . a . . . long . . . career. I'm . . . going . . . to . . . do . . . it."

Impossible? Don't even speak that word here at Hope University/Unico National College in Anaheim. The folks here don't know what it means, nor do they want to find out. Hang around with them for a while and you'll forget it ever existed.

They have a saying around this place: "Don't let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."

Listen again. Through the open door of that classroom, a strong male voice rings out earnestly, with hardly a hesitation:

Then sings my soul,

My savior, God, to thee,

How great thou art,

How great thou art. . . .

Do you hear it? That's Danny McNet.

On Sunday afternoon, McNet and 11 other aspiring stars will make their official debut at the Hope University/Unico National College version of "Star Search." After a final competition next month, three winners will receive one-year scholarships to the school worth $1,800 each. But there will be no losers.

"We're going to find a way to get all of them in here somehow," says Doris Walker, founder and executive director of the school. And when she says she'll find a way, believe her. So far, she always has.

All of the contestants, like the dozen students already attending the school, are trainable mentally retarded. Many have other obstacles to fight as well. Some are blind; others can walk only with crutches. For some, the problem began before they were born. Others suffered brain damage during birth, or afterward. It hardly matters now that they are adults--the kind of adults whose prospects usually range from a lifetime in an institution, at worst, to a job in a sheltered workshop, at best.

"Star Search" contestant Linda Enderson now spends her days in such a workshop, managed by the Orange County Assn. for Retarded Children.

"What do you do there?" prompts her mother, Lou.

"Putting 12 screws in a package," she says.

"What else?"

"I punch holes."

On Sunday, Enderson will sing "Let Me Be There." She already participates in square-dancing with the college's Discovery Twirlers. "She's always enjoyed music," her mother says.

The search marks the first time that students are being actively recruited for Hope University--the only private fine arts college in the world for the gifted mentally retarded.

Walker started using music with mentally handicapped students almost by accident. She studied business administration in college but gave up on that career after years as an executive secretary in a large corporation. After going back to school, she got a job as a teacher at an Orange County high school for the handicapped in 1969. "When I arrived in the spring, here was my name, and across from it it said 'Music.'

"There was hardly anything I could research on the subject," she says. "Over the summer, I read four books. I went into the classroom in the fall and never opened them again."

The students "weren't supposed to be able to do anything," Walker says. "But I began to realize they could. I didn't have anything to go by, so I just kept trying things. I failed a lot, but I'd pick myself up and try something else."

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