When entertainer Scott Linker’s daughter Sabrina was in kindergarten, she was bright, scored well on tests, and was accepted into a prestigious private school. But suddenly the precocious little girl who already could read and order from restaurant menus started having trouble in her new learning environment.
“It was just a big disparity for her. She tested high but she was having behavioral problems,” Linker says.
When she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Linker says, it clarified not only his understanding of his daughter’s challenges, but sparked an epiphany about himself.
“It was an aha! moment in my life. I had struggled in many ways and never felt like I fit in,” says Linker, who performed with Ringling Bros. for more than a decade and plays multiple musical instruments. Soon, he too was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
“A lot of thinkers are lopsided — your strengths are big but your basics are weak. A lot of our greatest thinkers and performers didn’t really fit in the box — Einstein didn’t fit in; he took a civil service job and figured out E=mc2 in his spare time,” Linker says.
As Linker began searching for more creative ways to educate his daughter, he wanted to share that knowledge with others.
Enter UNLV’s then-fledgling Project FOCUS, a specialized program for differently abled minds, led by professor Joshua Baker, who is in the educational and clinical studies department in the College of Education.
“Scott Linker was really the first donor that we ever got. If it wasn’t for him, we might not be here,” Baker says. ”He saw something worthwhile in us; he saw that everyone has strengths that may get lost if we don’t hone in on them, and he helped so much.”
Linker’s seed money created stability for a program that addresses a wide range of educational opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. “We started as a post-secondary program in 2014. We have 16 students right now whose diagnoses range from Down syndrome to Asperger, and we have 25 more people on the waiting list,” Baker says. Project FOCUS provides a post-secondary experience leading to either a certificate or, in some cases, a degree.
“We provide the social skill development and work with them while they work on school,” Baker said. “These kids are used to being separated, and now they are able to have an inclusive experience, and for many, it’s life-changing.”
One such student is John Ueda, who couldn’t have afforded the college experience without Linker’s sponsorship.
Ueda, 23, takes communications, math, and theatre courses; he works as an office assistant at the CSUN preschool; and he pursues something he never thought he could earn: a bachelor of arts degree.
He also mentors his classmates in anything from science to how to find the right classroom.
“I like to get different opportunities,” Ueda says. “I’m doing so many things I didn’t know I could do.” Right now, he says, his acting and communications classes are helping him with his social skills. That’s a concept not lost on Scott and Sabrina Linker, as Sabrina, now 17, recently was accepted to a prestigious performing arts school in Los Angeles.
“It’s often people who don’t fit in, people who think outside the box, that end up making great contributions to the world,” Linker says.
“You have to nourish their passions while helping them get along in the world. I wanted to arm people to deal with these challenges, and I think Project FOCUS does that.”
Learn more about UNLV Foundation giving programs.