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Published in Print: March 14, 2001, as Grassroots Group is Taking Names In Effort To Increase Spending

Grassroots Group is Taking Names In Effort To Increase Spending

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They're not exactly your typical group of activists: a newspaper publisher, a teacher who won a beauty pageant, a 13-year-old boy with Down syndrome, and his mom.

But they're serious about making an impact on Washington and on schools across the country. Specifically, they want more money to pay for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark federal special education law that was first adopted in 1975.

Two years ago, the New Hampshire residents came together to establish the National Campaign to Fully Fund IDEA. The group is aiming to gather 1 million signatures from across the country urging Congress to drastically increase funding for special education. So far, the organizers have gotten about 250,000 people to lend their names to the cause.

The four members include Alice Porembski, a mother of seven and part-time lobbyist for some disabilities groups; her son Corey, a friendly 13-year-old who has been chosen as one of People magazine's "20 Teens Who Will Change the World"; Brandee Helbick, a special education teacher who reigned as Miss New Hampshire in 1999; and Fidele Bernasconi, a retired newspaper editor and publisher.

Mr. Bernasconi got involved when he retired to New Hampshire and bought a community newspaper in Hudson. He began attending the local school board meetings, and over and over, he heard complaints about rising special education costs and the ensuing property-tax increases.

"The more I looked into it, the more I saw Uncle Sam saying all these things had to be done, had to be followed, but there was no money," said Mr. Bernasconi, who describes himself as a conservative Republican. He and his wife, Priscilla, decided to lobby for federal relief and began posing questions on the topic to the presidential candidates who were campaigning in the state early last year.

On a Mission

Meanwhile, Ms. Helbick had decided to use her platform as Miss New Hampshire, a precursor to the Miss America pageant, to showcase special education.

"I was looking for some depth and a way to really make a difference, and I couldn't think of anything better than raising awareness of the differing abilities people have," she said.

Ms. Helbick, who teaches at a middle school in Londonderry, N.H., had already had years of experience on the issue—she was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities in elementary school and struggled to complete high school and college. "Had I never received [special education] services, I would have dropped out of high school," she said.

She was introduced to Ms. Porembski, and the two agreed to start a petition drive. Ms. Porembski, a resident of Merrimack who had spent years advocating on behalf of Corey, knew which state and national groups to get in touch with. She also arranged to go to Washington with Ms. Helbick for two days and pack in as many meetings as they could with congressional lawmakers and disability-rights groups.

But when they arrived home and stepped off the plane in Manchester, they realized they had inadvertently left their best spokesman at home. When they explained to Corey what they had done on the trip, he said, " 'I am special education. I want to read, I want to vote, I want to have a good job,' " Ms. Porembski recalled. "I realized, this was as much about Corey as the legislators in Washington want to relieve property taxes back home."

A couple of months later, the three were headed back to Washington, where Corey met with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and the boy and Ms. Helbick spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference on IDEA funding.

Afterward, Ms. Porembski and Ms. Helbick were introduced to Mr. Bernasconi and agreed to consolidate their efforts. With no budget to speak of, they began attending events, such as Easter Seals walks and local Lions' Club and community-group meetings. National disability-rights groups also volunteered to send the petition to members of Congress, and soon, the signatures began arriving.

Now, the National Campaign to Fully Fund IDEA has garnered many fans at home in New Hampshire and across the country.

Alan J. Robichaud, the executive director of the Developmental Disabilities Council in Concord, the state capital, credits the NCFFI with raising awareness throughout the state about the federal share of special education costs. That share, at 15 percent, falls far short of the goal set a quarter-century ago of 40 percent of the national average per-pupil cost.

"Before Alice [Porembski] got involved, it wasn't much on anybody's radar screen," Mr. Robichaud said. "Only through the NCFFI did our congressional delegation get behind it."

Now, the group is working with local volunteers to sort through and count all the signatures. They plan to deliver the petition to Washington in May.

Corey, who hopes to become a Catholic priest someday, said he couldn't wait to see his friends in Congress and deliver his message: "Please fund IDEA, I beg you."

Vol. 20, Issue 26, Page 32

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