Magical Bridge Foundation Kindness Ambassadors Ava Goumas (a rising Junior at Saint Francis High School) , Cheryl Tolomeo (a rising Junior at Los Altos High School) , and Isabella Koutsoyannis (a rising Senior at Paly Alto High School) were selected to joining the Teen Advisory Board for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As members of this group, they were asked to identify a problem within the community that negatively impacts those with disabilities. They realized that there is a lack of proper educational techniques for students with disabilities, and their solution to this problem is called Active Learning. 

Over the past few months, a team of women dedicated themselves to an innovative approach to learning that holds exciting promise to change the way educators teach students with disabilities. This approach is called Active Learning, and it entails catering to the student’s developmental age (what age someone is based on their abilities) in lue of their chronological age (how old someone is based on their number of birthdays). By implementing developmentally appropriate activities for students, such as parallel play for teenagers with a developmental age of a toddler, the student will progress! 

This idea is not yet in place in many schools in the United States, so teens Ava Goumas, Cheryl Tolomeo, and Isabella Koutsoyannis found a passion in this approach, and look forward to implementing this in their schools and community.

The girls were introduced to this new way of both teaching and learning by their friend and mentor, Olenka Villarreal, the CEO and founder of Magical Bridge Foundation. Olenka was inspired by her daughter, Ava Villarreal, who is a rising senior at Palo Alto High School and has never experienced any effective progressions in her learning. This is due to the lack of accommodations by the school systems for students with disabilities, as well as the failure to recognize the difference between chronological and developmental age. Although Ava may be a rising senior in high school, she is developmentally as little as 2 or 3 years old and continues to battle the obstacles of being non-verbal without the proper accommodations. Olenka has been so disappointed to see Ava’s days at school filled with tedious, passive activities such as watering the plants or delivering mail. Because of this, Olenka has searched for an effective way to provide her daughter and so many others like her with a real educational experience that would develop into visible progress in her learning (and developmental age). This is something that has been lacking ever since her introduction to the public education system, as Ava was quickly swept away from the other students without disabilities and restricted from making any new learning progressions. Olenka was elated when she discovered the power of Active Learning, and happened to stumble upon two wonderful advocates for students with all abilities, Lisa Shaanan and Sarah Lundgren. 

Lisa Shaanan, an occupational therapist who also works with developmentally young students, as well as Sarah Lundgren, a mother of an incredible child, Dean (21 years old), with both physical and developmental disabilities, were so generous to create an in-depth 5-lesson course on the potential and promise of Active Learning. These two women formed an Active Learning Facilitator curriculum adapted from Lilli Nielsen’s Active Learning Model that illustrates the need for the right kinds of instruction and accommodations for students with developmental disabilities. Cheryl, Ava, and Isabella were inspired by each lesson and were reminded of one important take away: this is a community that has been misunderstood and overlooked for far too long.


Lisa and Sarah, in addition to these teens, hope to see this model of Active Learning available in schools for all students, so that finally students with disabilities can receive proper accommodations and support for their educational experience. In order to do so, Ava, Cheryl, and Isabella plan to dedicate their time over the next few weeks collecting data from public high schools’ current programs for students with disabilities. They hope that they can find ways to make Active Learning both accessible and feasible, starting locally in our very own community before venturing to accomplish the goal of nationally. As of now, they have made a total of 6 videos based on the Active Learning curriculum that explicate its importance in an comprehensible, user friendly way. These videos serve as the first of many steps for disability education advocacy from these teens, and they can’t wait to show these videos to schools across the nation as an introduction to the benefits of implementing active learning in all school curriculums.

These short videos curated by Ava Goumas, Isabella Koutsoyannis, and Cheryl Tolomeo detail Active Learning’s foundation, importance, and future. You can find them linked below, including the Series Overview

Episode 1: What is Active Learning: A Discussion

Bay Area Teens discuss what they have learned about an innovative approach to learning after their introduction to Active Learning by two experts in this field. 

Episode 2: How Can we Use Active Learning: A Discussion

Bay Area Teens discuss the applications of this method learning, and how it may be used to benefit students with disabilities in education. 

Episode 3: Facilitating Play

Ava, Bella, and Cheryl share what they have learned about what it means to be a facilitator of play. They introduce and suggest ways of allowing children to optimize their learning via play. 

Episode 4: The Dance of Active Participation 

Ava, Bella, and Cheryl describe what they call “The Dance of Active Participation”. This includes how to encourage the learner to learn both with and without guidance. Remember: it is not an exact science, and risk is an important aspect of play! 

Episode 5: Active Learning in Action!

The three girls reflect on all that they have learned from their mentors and highlight the potential benefits of Active Learning for an often overlooked community. 


If you’d like to learn more about the Magical Bridge Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program or ways to support our efforts to make our community welcoming and inclusive for ALL our residents, kindly contact Jill Asher at


Please visit here to read and hear a recap of the first cohort of Magical Bridge Foundation’s DEI Board Presentation.


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