The Jonathan Foundation

Granada Hills woman’s efforts to fight for kids with learning disabilities honored

Raja B. Marhaba will accept L’Oréal Paris’ 14th annual Women of Worth award in New York City

When Raja B. Marhaba’s two sons were diagnosed with learning disabilities, she fought for seven years to get them the free, public school services she felt they deserved.

Those years of emotional and financial turmoil strained her marriage and impeded her corporate career, she said. Nonetheless, her vision for The Jonathan Foundation For Children with Learning Disabilities was born.

The Granada Hills-based foundation, named after one of her sons, focuses on special-education systems nationwide.

It offers information, resources, referrals and direct advocacy services focused on special education and additional state services beyond what a school district offers.

Marhaba’s advocacy and fierceness for those children hasn’t gone unnoticed.

On Wednesday, she will be among nine other national honorees at L’Oréal Paris’ 14th annual Women of Worth Awards gala in New York City that celebrates the intrinsic worth of everyday women igniting positive change in their communities and championing self-worth in others.

In addition to each of the 10 women receiving $10,000 for their organizations, an additional $25,000 will be awarded to one chosen as the finalist. More than 500 nominees were submitted for this year’s award.

“The tangible impact that The Jonathan Foundation for Children with Learning Diabilities has in addressing the needs of children with education, emotional and educational challenges is an inspiration,” said company spokeswoman Karen T. Fondu. “(Raja) continues to advocate for children every year, spending an average 20-40 hours reviewing a child’s case while taking them through the Individual Education Program meeting with school districts in order to grant the specific services the child needs.”

Marharba has been nominated four times for the L’Oréal Paris award.

“This year I finally won; that shows how prestigious it is,” said Marhaba, a licensed Realtor and co-owner of Martec Construction, Inc., which she has operated with her husband, Omar, for two decades.

She has spent a lifetime fighting for her cause.

Growing up first generation in a traditional Middle Eastern culture, and working as a woman in the construction business both presented challenges.

But it’s that experience the Palestinian-American used to initially advocate for her two young sons and what has brought her full circle today as a champion for nearly 300 families.

Having children with learning disabilities didn’t make her an expert.

So, she became a trained advocate, interned at an attorney’s office and finally received her paralegal credential from UCLA.

Marhaba’s pro bono work also extends to Children of the Night, a nonprofit organization with a nationwide hotline dedicated to rescuing children from prostitution, and continues to volunteer her professional advocacy services to children and teens served by the organization’s programs.

The $10,000 prize — and perhaps the final prize of $25,000 — would be earmarked for psycho educational assessments.

“There’s a big need for that,” Marhaba said. “(These assessments) identify deficits and strengths in an individual’s brain process, how the brain is wired. This is important because there could be missing pieces of the puzzle of the child that has not been identified.

“This test would bring to life social, academic, emotional, behavioral and cognitive strength and weaknesses” she added. “It (shows) the levels where a child currently is performing, but also indicates it could be at a higher or lower level.”

Marhaba fights for free and appropriate public education.

She pores over school-related reports and documents in districts nationwide that have failed to provide children what’s afforded them under federal special-education laws.

Gerad Hopkins, 21, of North Hills, is a perfect example of her charitable efforts.

The Hopkins family came to Marhaba when he was ready to begin high school.

They had fought with a local school district for years to get him the extra services he needed because of a brain injury that happened when he was nine months old.

The Hopkins family tried home schooling before Marhaba introduced them to the Frostig Center in Pasadena, where her children had attended small class-size settings.

“We were losing him academically and socially before we connected with Raja,” said Debra Hopkins. “You want to quit, but you know Raja is not going to. She empowers (us.)”

“The improvement in his first year, academically, socially and cognitively, showed such improvement it made the case for us,” Hopkins said. “He had lost so much confidence, felt isolated and bullied and the biggest gift he got back was his confidence.”

Gerad attended the center for four years before going on to Glendale Community College, where he is currently studying music.

“It was good for me to get to know other students with similar difficulties like I have,” Gerad said. “If I didn’t go to Frostig, I would be struggling the same way I did when I was younger. I’m grateful to have Raja to help me out. She’s amazing. She works hard and deserve (the award). She helped me through a lot of struggles. She helped my mom.”

Because of Marhaba, Gerad believes anyone can achieve anything by overcoming fear.

“Because when you hide it, it doesn’t come out like you want it,” Gerad said.

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