Great stories have unexpected beginnings.

For Jennifer Hunt, native San Diegan and teacher in the Grossmont High School District, it all started the morning after she graduated from Point Loma High School.

As Jennifer recalls that serendipitous moment, “The day after graduation, I started a part time job as a substitute teacher’s aide at Alcott Elementary Infant Program.” Alcott Elementary provides special education classes to children from birth to 3-years-old.

“My family was always involved in special education while I was growing up, but it wasn’t until I had that firsthand experience that I fell in love with the students and knew this was what I wanted to dedicate my life to,” beamed Jennifer.

Upon earning her moderate-to-severe special education teaching credential, Jennifer started her career at the elementary level. Soon after, she recognized that many of the classrooms for her students felt more like a hospital ward than a learning environment.

This is when Jennifer really started to make her impact.

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Giving Time and Talent

Initially, Jennifer traveled to facilities around the country and researched best practices to ensure San Diego’s classrooms provided the best active-learning curriculum for special needs students.

“I knew there was more that could be done educationally for these kids,” explained Jennifer. “So after encouragement from other educators and parents, I decided to fundraise for better classroom resources and learning tools built specifically for these students. Little did I know how much of a challenge this would be.”

“Sometimes being young and naïve is an advantage,” joked Jennifer.

How is your work helping to create more opportunities and resources for San Diego students? Let us know in the comments below!

Amid countless cold calls and “no” responses, Jennifer finally connected with the Fieldstone Foundation.

Student Sally

Sally received funding for her own iPad, installed with the ProloQuo2Go communication app, in 2015.

When presented with the idea to provide better educational tools for special needs students, Fieldstone Foundation founders and executive director Janine Mason decided that funding Jennifer’s work would be a great way to give back in an area that was close to their hearts.

Soon after, a partnership was formed.

Through the Jane Johnson Fund at The San Diego Foundation, the Fieldstone Foundation provided funding to help Jennifer build the first multisensory classroom for San Diego Unified School District special needs students.

Over time, Jennifer would lead the fundraising and installation of two more multisensory rooms in the region.

The significance of the improved classroom space lies in the personalization and number of tools available for teachers and students. As Jennifer describes, “The rooms are designed for staff to be able to control the sensory input to students and manipulate the environment to promote movement and engagement.”

For example, fiber optic strands encourage students to explore with their hands, and water beds installed with music enable the kids to feel the rhythm through vibration.

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Leaving a Mark

As a result of her efforts, Jennifer was recognized as San Diego Unified Teacher of the Year in 2005. And although she was never a professional fundraiser, her passion for her students and impactful ideas have helped her accomplish so much for so many.

Student Oscar

Oscar will receive a grant at the end of the 2015-2016 school year to purchase his own iPad.

Today, Jennifer is an Assistant Director of Special Education in Grossmont High School District (GUHSD). With a team of dynamic, committed teachers and speech and language therapists, the Jane Johnson Fund has a new and exciting mission.

Jennifer explained that in the last five years technology has opened unbelievable opportunities for students with limited or no verbal language to communicate.

“Many older students are now able to speak to their teachers and families using voice output software, but once they graduate the tools are gone,” explains Jennifer.

“Our district has talented teachers and therapists that spend four to eight years teaching students how to independently use devices to speak and access the world. It is devastating to take those tools from families without the means to replace them when they graduate. We are working with families to ensure that this learning and communication continues long after students leave high school.”

The Jane Johnson Fund, in collaboration with United Cerebral Palsy, assists parents who qualify in purchasing the same devices or equipment the student used while in school.

The GUHSD team, which includes, Chris Villalobos, SLP, Elizabeth Castagnera, special education teacher and Rita Krupp, SLP dedicated their personal time to training family members and updating the devices long after the student has exited the school system.

Jennifer hopes that these models for special education will expand to other districts within the region.

How is your work helping to create more opportunities and educational resources for San Diego’s students? Let us know in the comments below!

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