Rancho scholars make most of their opportunities

DOWNEY - Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center's Café Amigos was filled with people, pride and promise for the future as 59 Rancho scholars were honored and provided with scholarships to further their educational goals at the Third Annual Las Floristas Scholarship Dinner on Sept. 24.The scholars are Rancho patients who range from secondary school students to college students pursuing advanced degrees. Rancho, Las Floristas and the Norris Foundation (the sponsor of the Scholarship Dinner) work together to encourage Rancho's patients to not only stay in school but to excel in their studies. The scholars have achieved impressive results. "In the general population in America, 24 percent of students achieve Bachelors degrees, compared with only seven percent of persons with disabilities," said Lisa Hilborn, the director of Rancho's renowned Wheelchair Sports Program. "But our Rancho scholars are achieving the same rate of college graduation as the general population, which is three and one-half times higher than the rate of other persons with disabilities throughout the nation. And ours have even higher rates of students earning Masters degrees than the general population." "Their achievements are simply amazing, and we are so proud of these outstanding young men and women," said Lisa Hansen, President of Las Floristas and Chair of the Kneeth T. & Eileen L. Norris Foundation Board of Trustees. "It is rewarding to see the progress the patients make thanks to the world-class programs at Rancho and the special Las Floristas-funded programs such as Wheelchair Sports, the Adolescent Support Group, and the scholarship program." "This is my favorite event of the year," said Susan Dilday, who spearheads the scholarship event for Las Floristas. "I'm so happy we created an occasion to honor our scholars and also honor our athletes." Susan also thanked the Norris Foundation, not only for its underwriting, but for its encouragement and its many creative ideas that have helped make the scholarship program so successful. "Hearing the stories of how these dedicated young people overcame their disabling conditions and excelled in their studies is truly inspirational," said Jackie Jervis Funk, a member of the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation Board of directors. "It is absolutely incredible to see the self-confidence and determination these outstanding scholars bring to their everyday lives. It makes me proud to be associated with an institution such as Rancho that makes the critical difference in so many lives." There were many highlights during the evening as the scholars and their families celebrated their accomplishments, but perhaps the most magical moments came when Joyce Ko and Daniel Bennett were presented with the evening's highest honor, the "Spirit of Life Award". The award is presented to scholars who exemplify the Spirit of Rancho in their everyday lives, as well as for the impact they make on many lives they touch as they make meaningful contributions to society. Rancho speech therapist B.J. Sena choked back tears as he described how Joyce Ko overcame a life-threatening injury to become an exceptional student and highly valued Rancho volunteer. Joyce has contributed more than 600 volunteer hours to the hospital over the last few years. "Joyce inspires us all, not only with her beautiful smile, but with her determination to give back to Rancho, which helped her build a personal bridge to an independent and fulfilling life, said B.J. "She is kind and caring with our patients, and she is always so much fun to work with. Her eagerness to learn and serve is a positive influence on everyone she comes in contact with as she helps with everything from our special events to individual and group treatment sessions. I hope she knows how much everyone at Rancho loves her and how much happiness she has created for our patients." Joyce flashed her trademark smile as she told the audience how she felt about Rancho. "I am so thankful for everything that Rancho has done to help me be successful in life," Joyce said. "I don't just want to give back to Rancho, I have to give back to Rancho because Rancho gave me my life back." Dan Bennett than entered the spotlight, awash in chants of "Dan the Man!" from his Rancho Wheelchair Sports teammates. Dan was born with Spina Bifida. His parents were told that his chances for a productive life were slim at best. But then he came to Rancho, a place where his treatment team believed in him and encouraged him to believe in himself. Dan overcame his extreme shyness by joining the wheelchair sports team at age 13. "Playing wheelchair sports helped me realize what I could do, instead of what I couldn't do," Dan said. "As I gained confidence, I took on larger and larger challenges. Before I knew it, I had graduated from high school, then I earned my B.S. in Biology from UCLA. Then I earned a teaching credential at Cal State Long Beach, and I achieved my life goal of becoming a teacher!" But Dan is no ordinary teacher. He teaches chemistry and biology at Los Alamitos High School, where his colleagues and his students consider him among the school's most effective instructors. "Science is especially challenging for today's students, and I really enjoy watching the lights turn on as they begin to understand Chemistry or Biology," Dan said. "Now I am married, and we are starting a family. I truly have a wonderful life. But I never would have been able to envision or achieve these great things without the inspiration and unwavering support from Rancho, Lisa and my mom, who believed in me and helped me understand that nothing is impossible." "Joyce, Dan and all our scholars are successful in part because there is a place called Rancho and a loving, caring group of women named Las Floristas that provided them with the tools and opportunities that enabled them to achieve their dreams," said Luis Montes, MD, Chair of Rancho's Pediatrics Department. "It is a pleasure and an honor for all of us at Rancho to work with these fantastic young people and to support them as they fulfill their destiny to make the world a better place."

********** Published: October 21, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 27