By Sam Phillips
Jennifer Gonda strongly believes that education is a right, not a privilege, and has dedicated her life to helping students with learning disabilities.
She co-founded Supported and Facilitated Environments, a non-profit that gives individuals with disabilities the resources they will need to be successful and independent. The organization teams up with Mahoning Valley Circle of Friends to take these individuals on group outings to build social skills, create friendships and simply have fun.
Gonda said the main objective is to provide the same opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities that anybody else has.
She recruited high school students from Cardinal Mooney High School, where she coaches the debate club, to volunteer at her non-profit. She said she realized that students with disabilities miss out on activities that neurotypical students are involved in.
“One of the questions that I always ask is, ‘raise your hand if you have ever had a kid with Down syndrome on your soccer team or a girl with autism in your dance class,’” Gonda said. “It’s very rare that those things happen. And those opportunities should be extended to everyone. Everyone deserves that right.”
She said schools exclude individuals with disabilities, which creates a lack of diversity in the student population. Some of the high school students she worked with had never met a student with a disability like autism and were curious to learn more about them. Students said they were inspired to become special education teachers because of their experiences.
Years before she started working in Youngstown, Gonda received her undergraduate degree in education policy while attending New York State University. She got a teaching job at a Brooklyn school where she created a “community organizing” club.
“The apex of this project over the semester [was] redesigning a playground and cafeteria for a school that was being built three blocks away,” Gonda said. “It got the attention of the developer of the new school and they really wanted to get to know the kids’ ideas. So from there it just became [making sure] every kid reaches their potential.”
While living in New York, she also had the opportunity to do research on the Black Panther Party. Many records were sealed for a certain period of time after they were donated, and Gonda was the first to read and do research on them. This research won her a grant to continue studying archives in San Francisco and Oakland.
“I was really interested in the civil rights movement and how education was a part of the movement,” Gonda said.
She looked at the initiative started by the Black Panther Party to feed children free breakfast and lunch, a beneficial community project that Gonda said is often overlooked by the party initiative to arm African Americans and their habit of showing up in courthouses wearing leather and carrying guns.
“It’s interesting that politicians take credit for [providing students with free meals] when in actuality over 100,000 kids in the country were getting free breakfast from the Black Panther Party. When the party fell, which was because of FBI counterintelligence, the government had to replace that,” Gonda said. “I was curious about the timeline of how those things happened. That’s part of our issue with how we teach history: we teach the winning side. We don’t hear that side of history.”
Although she had job offers coming from New York and New Orleans, Gonda decided to move back to Youngstown to be with her family and engage with the community she grew up in. She took additional training at Penn State University to become a board certified behavior analyst.
She was accepted to work for Teach For America, but she realized that it favored privileged people who could complete six weeks of unpaid training because they have financial support from their families. Although she doesn’t like that aspect of it, she respects the program.
“I know that they bring students of different backgrounds into their program, and I value that. The organization has a more diverse background and I applaud them for that, but it wasn’t the program for me,” Gonda said.
Along with directing SAFE and coaching the debate team at Cardinal Mooney, she teaches at Camp Sunshine for Exceptional Students in Aurora, Ohio, sits on the board of directors of the Autism Society of Ohio, directs a special needs day camp at the Youngstown YMCA and works as a behavior analyst at Aaris Therapy. She also works as an adjunct professor at Youngstown State University.
She said that being a teacher and influencing the minds of young people is very important, and it’s a job where people must have a firm approach and a clear goal. It takes more than being a nice person who wants to help people.
“It’s a very rewarding career but it’s not just a job, you have to have the right mindset and the mentality,” Gonda said. “You need to commit to the training and understand that education is a whole mindset. It takes being active and reflection. We really need to have that mindset for our teachers.”