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June 19, 2004

CSDR: Moving ceremony

From: Press-Enterprise - Riverside,CA,USA - Jun 19, 2004

School for the Deaf graduates students whose lives have been changed

By MARIA T. GARCIA / The Press-Enterprise

RIVERSIDE - Graduation day was also move-out day for about 40 seniors at California School for the Deaf, Riverside.

Many of the students who graduated Thursday evening have grown up together at the residential campus. For them, the school is a home away from home.

Senior Vanessa Maciel, 18, of Adelanto, began attending the school for deaf or hard-of-hearing children six years ago. Maciel made friendships along the way.

"I'm really going to miss my best friends," she said through a sign-language interpreter. "I don't want to lose touch with them."

Scores of parents, family and friends gathered on the school's front lawn for a commencement ceremony that featured a speech by state schools chief Jack O'Connell. He challenged graduates to continue setting high goals for themselves.

"All of you have overcome challenges to reach this day, and in doing so you have demonstrated something important to yourselves and to others," O'Connell said. "That is, if you set your sights high and persist day by day toward achieving your goals, you will indeed succeed."

Seniors Thy Nguyen and Brianna Diaz signed the song "I believe I can fly," by R. Kelly. Many in the audience used "deaf applause," cheering by raising one's hands and wiggling the fingers.

But it was also a bittersweet occasion.

A gray gown was draped over an empty chair where senior Lee Brian Toomey was to be seated. Lee, 17, is in a coma after being struck by a truck May 3 while walking in the intersection of Brockton and Arlington avenues. He is not expected to survive, said his foster father, Ken Maraj, a retired teacher at the school. Lee began attending CDR when he was 3 years old.

The Riverside school serves about 500 students and is one of two state-run residential deaf schools in California. The other is in the San Francisco Bay Area community of Fremont.

Salvador Heredia had a lot of catching up to do when he arrived at the school almost a year ago.

Heredia, who was born in Mexico but grew up in San Diego, said he had gotten into drugs and gangs and was at risk of dropping out of school.

But after seeing his "homies" end up shot or in prison, Heredia, 20, decided he wanted better than that.

"You live a short life with that kind of lifestyle," Heredia said recently through a sign-language interpreter.

Before arriving in Riverside, he attended mainstream schools in San Diego, where deaf students are rare. He had difficulty communicating with teachers and fellow students.

At the school for the deaf, he blossomed.

Heredia, who was born deaf and has cerebral palsy, had to overcome a shortage of credits in order to graduate.

"I have progressed a lot in my classes here compared to San Diego," Heredia said. "My life is a lot better now."

Heredia enrolled in a program that prepares students for jobs after high school graduation. He worked part time at Fritts Ford and plans to attend community college. Reach Maria T. Garcia at (909) 368-9455 or

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