Growing Side by Side was founded in 2021 in the midst of the Covid Pandemic. The importance of building a peer group, learning and playing side by side with your friends became even a bigger challenge for individuals overall, but even more so for individuals with special needs.
I have a very personal experience with this. As my son, who has cerebral palsy, moved into the teenage and transition years, I realized that opportunities for peer to peer contact in organic settings were limited. The ability to interact with others in a safe, supportive community were few. And even for those opportunities, access was unevenly spread throughout our diverse community.
Growing Side by Side was born out of the desire to build bridges between opportunities and the communities and individuals in need. Through education, collaboration, and creation, Growing Side by Side will increase opportunities to create peer typical relationships and bonds, and help them grow, side by side.
I am honored to be a member of the Growing Side by Side board where I can share my passion, skills, and nonprofit experience with this amazing foundation as it continues to grow and evolve. Providing connection, networking opportunities, and support for this inspiring and resilient community is a mission I stand behind and am committed to helping.
Jessica Santos is the Communications Manager at The Painted Turtle, where she is dedicated to providing children with serious medical conditions and their families with life-changing camp experiences.
Jessica has worked for the family of SeriousFun camps founded by Paul Newman for almost two decades. She believes camp has the power to not only transform the lives of the children and families but the people who serve them as well.
Jessica’s passion for working with children with special needs began at the University of Florida where she received her degree in theatre, dance, and communications. Using her skills as an artist Jessica started a dance company for children who are hearing impaired, volunteered with a variety of populations through the “Arts in Medicine” program at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fl and eventually found a career with her first SeriousFun camp, Camp Boggy Creek in Eustis, Florida.
Jessica was the first Assistant Camp Director at The Painted Turtle and the creator of the camps hospital outreach program, Outpost.
She currently resides on the communications team where her background in programming, graphic design, website management, and video production allows her to share hundreds of camper and family stories that speak to the power of camp.
Jessica attests that working with children with special needs is a gift. She has learned so much about life, courage, and perseverance from the children and families she has had the privilege of serving.
I became involved with Growing Side by Side after being inspired by
Katty & Jerry Rakfeldt’s leadership, creativity and determination to provide enriching social, physical and emotional growth and inclusion opportunities for their dynamic teenage son, Adrian. I am so excited to help this amazing organization grow and flourish in Santa Monica and the nearby communities.
Cathy Kelly is originally from Chicago and is an attorney with many years of experience practicing law in both the private and public sectors.
Cathy is presently an attorney for the City of Santa Monica, where she handles a broad range of litigation matters. In Chicago, she was actively involved in Ignite (formerly Teen Living Programs), a non-profit organization which focuses on 14-26 year olds who are experiencing homelessness by providing them with job skills, housing opportunities and personal and financial growth guidance.
Cathy views the adolescent and teen years as critical and life-shaping years in a person’s life, and she is honored to be a part of Growing Side by Side and to help further its mission.
Grace Lanzetta moved here from Chicago in 2019 and has quickly fallen in love with Santa Monica.
Grace was a registered nurse in Chicago before having children. After having her first daughter Alessia and finding out she was neurodiverse, Grace became a stay at home mom who devoted herself to the special needs community.
Grace has two daughters, Alessia (13) who has Autism and Intellectual Disability and Valentina (11) who has ADHD and Dyscalculia.
Grace is passionate about serving and organizing opportunities for our Santa Monica special needs community, and is grateful for the tremendous parent support and involvement.
Board Member - Program Comittee
Payal Maniar is a resident and engaged community member in Santa Monica. Being a mother of two, one being a neurodiverse learner, exposed Payal to the many accessibility challenges around us today. She is passionate about enabling a more inclusive community and is excited to be working on programs at Growing Side by Side that offer opportunities and support for youth of all abilities.
Payal brings a diverse set of career experiences to Growing Side by Side including, business development, finance, and operations experience. Previously Payal worked at Bear Stearns, Accenture and several LA based early stage ventures. In addition, Payal serves on two school district advisory committees, the Financial Oversight Committee and the Special Education District Advisory Committee.