Progress usually comes in small steps for the severely disabled children at Cedar Lane School in Howard County.
Five-year-old William Seipel, who has cerebral palsy, has spent the past three years learning how to hold his head up, follow objects with his eyes and press a switch to drive a powered wheelchair. Jeffrey Simms, 18, has the mental capacity of a 6-month-old, his father said, and is working on putting food in his mouth with a fork.
But in a ceremony yesterday, a major step happened: Boeing officials handed Cedar Lane Principal Nicholas P. Girardi a check for $15,000 -- the largest corporate donation the school has ever received and the aerospace company's first grant to a public school in Maryland. It capped an effort by William's and Jeffrey's fathers, Bob Seipel of Elkridge and Don Simms of Ellicott City, to secure money to help provide additional training for the school's teachers.
"It's very important for us to put back into the community," said John Werle, vice president and general manager for Boeing Mission Systems. "It's humbling for us to see the challenges and the results you've achieved here."
The school serves nearly 100 children ages 3 to 21 who have severe disabilities, ranging from autism to encephalopathy, where the brain is frozen in an early childhood or infant state. Teachers pushed dozens of students in wheelchairs outside yesterday to watch the ceremony. Others reveled in the sunshine and played in the grass, laughing and clapping their hands.
The money will pay for staff development, Girardi said. Teachers can now go to weekend classes on cognitive disabilities and receive workshop wages, attend conferences in Baltimore and learn new curriculum to improve student mobility.
"The county could never put together this kind of money for staff development at one school," the principal said.
The school normally raises $15,000 over the course of a year. The money trickles in through sales of gift wrap and the redemption of box tops and Campbell's Soup labels. Its biggest fundraiser is a walk in Centennial Park that generates a few thousand dollars, officials said.
Most elementary schools in Howard raised significantly more than that in the 2002-03 school year, the last year for which figures were available. One elementary school raised more than $45,000, and one high school garnered about $79,000.
"Our kids are not out there in the public as much," said Judy Simms, Jeffrey's mother.
There are no athletic teams, school plays or band concerts at Cedar Lane to drum up support for the school. The school also has weathered criticism that it segregates disabled students from their peers. Next year, Cedar Lane will move into a new building connected to Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton and designed to promote more interaction between the two student groups.
Judy Simms said time is another barrier to fundraising at the school. Parents are often so consumed with medical appointments and therapy sessions for their children that there is little time to devote to fundraising. Seipel and Don Simms, both Boeing employees, spent countless hours working with school staff and company officials to acquire the grant.
Seipel said he hopes the money will help bolster faculty members whose duties go far beyond teaching academics and life skills. Some students need diapers changed; others cannot feed themselves. Often, staff members will switch positions to stay with students as they change grades.
"The teachers are completely absorbed with getting the daily job done here," Seipel said. "As parents, there's no end of our appreciation of the staff."