Dreams comes true for Brandeis graduate

June 8, 2012

At some point in their lives, just about every student dreams of walking across a stage to get his or her diploma. For Brandeis High School senior Damien Kasten, the actual walk across the stage was just as meaningful as the diploma.

Last Saturday, Damien, who has required a wheelchair almost his entire life, used a walker to make it across the stage to accept his diploma. The Alamodome erupted with cheers.

(Watch Damien accept his diploma)

“I’ve had a dream for many, many years to walk across the stage and get my diploma,” Damien, 19, said. “I finally made it.”

Damien’s thousand-watt smile and unwavering spirit belie the constant fight his life has been since he was born and doctors told his mother he would be a vegetable. If it takes a village to raise a child, Damien needed an army.

Born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, Damien spent the first five months of his life in the hospital. He’s endured more than a dozen surgeries to replace or adjust the shunt in his head to drain fluid. As a child, if he received special services or participated in school activities, it was only because his mother Abigail wouldn’t take no for an answer.

And, he was told he couldn’t get a “regular” diploma because he couldn’t fulfill the physical education requirement in the state of Alabama, where his family used to live.

“It’s always been a fight,” Abigail Kasten said.

But since moving to San Antonio two years ago and enrolling Damien at Brandeis High School, she’s given the boxing gloves a rest.

At Brandeis, Damien and his mom found “special forces” that included physical and occupational therapists, special education teachers, technology specialists, fellow students, and an instructional assistant assigned full-time to Damien.

“It’s been a relief,” Abigail said. “They provide things for him that I never even thought to ask for. Here, they’re all willing to fight for him, too.”

When Damien first arrived at Brandeis, he was experiencing terrible back pain that made it difficult to concentrate on his school work. Staff members had to help him move from his wheelchair to a stander so that he could switch positions and alleviate the pain.

“He needed a lot of assistance,” remembers Katherine Ramon, one of his teachers. “He was very hesitant and very dependent on other people.”

Northside ISD physical therapist Glenda Woodruff knew right away that a new wheelchair was critical to increasing both Damien’s comfort and independence.

“At this age, we encourage students to be as independent as possible,” Woodruff said.

Rex Wojtek at Wheelchairs Plus on Wurzbach Road recommended the Permobil C500, a highly specialized electric wheelchair that would allow Damien to stand at the touch of a button and then move once standing. This particular wheelchair also makes it much easier to transfer into a walker, which Damien can use on a limited basis.

Medicaid balked at the $40,000 price tag because the wheelchair wasn’t a “medical necessity.” The Kastens ended up seeking assistance from an attorney, requested a fair hearing, and Damien testified on his own behalf. After the hearing, they waited six months to find out that Medicaid had finally authorized the purchase of the wheelchair.

Damien received the new chair this past February. The first thing he did was hug his grandmother while standing up for the first time in his life.

“I’m still speechless,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”

The day after he got his new wheelchair, Ramon, his teacher, said she was about to show a video in class and asked one of the students to turn off the lights. Damien quickly, said, “No, I got it.” It took him a while, but he finally flipped off the switch all by himself, Ramon said. The entire class applauded him.

“It’s the little things,” Ramon said.

Damien’s mother couldn’t agree more.

Damien’s full-time instructional assistant at Brandeis, Steve Gordon, serves on the board of San Antonio Independent Living Services and got Jordan Ford to loan him a special needs vehicle so that he could take Damien to prom last month.

Gordon went on his own time so that Damien didn’t have to be chaperoned by his mom.

“Being able to go to a dance without his mom hanging out? That’s a big deal,” Abigail said. “Things like that mean a lot to us.”

Like most staff members who have worked with Damien, Gordon says the extra effort is more than worth it. Despite his challenges, Damien never uses the word “can’t,” Gordon said.

“He’s made my job so much easier and so much better because of his positive attitude,” Gordon said. “Damien is one of those students who makes teaching fun.”

In the last two years, Damien has been transformed both physically and socially, his teachers, his therapists, and his mom say. Previously, whenever someone asked him a question, he used to look to his mother or grandmother for the answer. But now he speaks up for himself, his mother said. Oh, and his prom date? The prom queen.

“The staff here at Brandeis has been truly amazing,” Damien said, eyes welling with tears. “My teachers are awesome. My classmates have been truly helpful.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I think Damien is amazing,” said Dawn Bluhm, assistive technology specialist at Brandeis. “Damien is one of those students you will never forget.”

Damien hopes to attend the Reddix Center next year to learn additional job skills. Some day, he would love to be a web designer and an advocate for people with special needs, he said.

In the meantime, Damien will revel in his successful battle to earn a high school diploma. A real one.

“All these years we were told that it would never happen,” Abigail said. “And now it’s happened. It gives me goose bumps.”

1 getting diploma
Trustee Lynn Britton presents Damien with his high school diploma. Brandeis Special Education Department Coordinator Sam Gonzalez stands by to assist.

2 mom and diploma
Damien and his mother, Abigail Kasten, pose for a photo outside the Alamodome moments after Damien received his high school diploma. It was a huge accomplishment, considering doctors told Abigail right after Damien was born that he probably would be a vegetable.

3 brandeis staff
Damien's "special forces" at Brandeis High school include: Dawn Bluhm, assistive technology specialist; Eric Jupe, coach and English teacher; Janice Cerda, special education case manager; Megan Telles, job coach; Steve Gordon, instructional assistant; Veronica Mechler, special education campus coordinator; Amy Costello, special education teacher; Sam Gonzalez, special education department coordinator; Glenda Woodruff, physical therapist; and Katherine Ramon, special education teacher.

4 candace signs yearbook
Candace Lochridge, a physical therapy assistant, signs Damien's yearbook.

5 sharlene present
Damien's huge smile and upbeat attitude made him popular among both students and staff at Brandeis High School. Here, Damien gets emotional after Sharlene O'Neil, a member of the cafeteria staff, gives him a hug and a graduation present.

6 prom
Damien's instructional assistant, Steve Gordon, got Jordan Ford to donate a special needs vehicle so he could take Damien to prom. Gordon went on his own time so that Damien didn't have to be chaperoned by his mom. Damien's date was the prom queen.

7 damien and family
Damien's army at home includes, from left, his mother, Abigail Kasten; his mother's longtime boyfriend, Kelvin Kirby; grandmother, Manuela Brett; step grandfather, Ronald Brett; sister, Annalisa Kirby; and grandfather, James Kasten.