Amy Chun, who has Down syndrome, often feels isolated at Albany Middle School.
But her mother, Joanne Chun, said things are different at the Ala Costa Center — a 30-year-old after school program for the developmentally disabled on Rose Street in Berkeley.
“It is a place where she is understood,” said Chun. “People get her.”
The center, founded by a group of Berkeley parents in 1972, serves 50 children ages 5 to 22 from Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito and Emeryville. A new Ala Costa program, slated to open in Oakland in September, will serve 15 young people at first, eventually expanding to 35.
The program is divided into four classrooms, separated by age and skill level, and provides a wide range of activities suited to student needs. Fourteen- to 18 year-old kids in the “Voyager” classroom, for instance, go over the signs they might see in the community and learn how to turn away strangers who might try to take advantage of them.
But the center also provides the bread and butter of any after school program — art classes, basketball games and talent shows.
“The bottom-line belief is that our kids shouldn’t be separated from society,” said Executive Director Holly Gold. “They should be able to experience everything that other kids experience.”
Gold said the center works hard to ensure “community integration,” taking students to movies and museums, riding the train and sending them to play with other kids in the public playground adjacent to the center.
Site supervisor Jorge Belloso-Curiel said Ala Costa teachers work to integrate important lessons on the trips — how to interact properly with a storeowner or carefully cross the street.
“Some of our kids do act inappropriately, and that’s why they’re here,” he said.
But perhaps the most important thing the center provides is a sense of community and belonging.
“If they didn’t come here, they wouldn’t have any friends,” Gold said. “They’ve never been invited to a birthday party. They’ve never had a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Margie Chambers, lead teacher in the Voyagers classroom, said many of her students who are too sick to go to school on a given day insist on going to Ala Costa in the afternoon to plug into the social network.
Gold, who has a background in drug treatment and HIV/AIDS work, took the reins of Ala Costa in March 2000.
“The program was really great, but there was an opportunity for growth,” she said.
Gold worked on some of the details, including putting pictures on the wall, updating the computer and telephone systems and creating a Web site and brochure. She also created the site supervisor position so she could focus on the big picture as well.
The major focus has been the new center, which will be housed in a set of portable classrooms outside Thurgood Marshall Elementary School near Oakland International Airport.
“It’s been a dream for who knows how many years,” Gold said. “We’ve always had a huge waiting list.”
Gold said she hopes Oakland will “follow the city of Berkeley’s lead” when the center opens. Berkeley provides generous financial support for Ala Costa, renting the center its building for a nominal fee and providing the program an annual grant of $30,000.
Ala Costa’s overall budget is $500,000 to $600,000 a year and will expand to $1 million when the new facility opens, Gold said. The state provides most of the center’s funding through the Regional Center of the East Bay and the Department of Education’s Child Development Division.
Gold said she hopes to build private fund raising as well. A walkathon is scheduled for June 19 and a 30th anniversary fund-raising celebration is slated for January.
The center’s long-term goal is to see after school programs for the developmentally disabled nationwide. That growth is long overdue, Gold said.
“In a way it’s nothing special,” Gold said, describing the model. “It’s an after school program that’s designed to work for kids who need a lot of care.”