When most people think of San Diego, they often think of beautiful beaches, breathtaking views and fantastic weather. But if you take the time to dig a little deeper, you’ll see that San Diego offers so much more. I’ve lived here for more than 20 years but it wasn’t until recently, that I discovered one of San Diego’s true hidden gems. I’m not talking about a secret restaurant or a secluded walking path that only locals know about. I’m referring to a place called St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center.
Tucked away in the secluded backcountry of El Cajon, this East County center is all about making a difference… and empowering adults with developmental disabilities such as Autism, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. The center was created in 1966 by the Religious of the Society of the Sacred Heart. The center’s first director was Sr. Mary Mardel and back then, they only had one classroom and eight students. When it was first launched, it specialized in preschool children with developmental disabilities. Eventually, the center changed its focus to adults with developmental disabilities. Today, SMSC has helped countless of people… thanks to its extensive program which offers everything from Aquatics, Culinary Arts Training, Organic Gardening and Arts & Crafts.
“This is such a wonderful place, ” said Executive Director Debra Emerson. “I’ve been here for 15 years and for me, the greatest joy is when I see students learning and smiling.” According to Emerson, SMSC’s goal is to help students (also called Consumers) to live fuller lives, work at jobs they enjoy (which also allows them to earn income) and participate in some of life’s simplest pleasures such as sharing dinner with friends. They have students from 22-years-old to 80-years-old.
It’s obvious SMSC is a place filled with love. As I was shown around the grounds, I could sense the compassion and dedication of the staff. I was also impressed by the students talents. At the gift shop, all of the items on sale were personally created by students and included everything from cards to hand painted ceramics and gorgeous jewelry. They even had a colorful rocking chair that I wanted to buy. (Lack of space in our home is the only reason I didn’t purchase it!) By the way, in addition to their El Cajon location, they also have a unique gallery and gift shop at NTC Promenade. (Naval Training Center) – it’s worth the trip!
If you would like to learn more about SMSC and how you can help, go on their website for more information. Emerson says there’s a variety of ways people can help, from making a donation to volunteering. Or even better – check out one of their upcoming events such as the Haute with Heart Fashion Show on Saturday, August 20th from 10am to 2pm at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. Proceeds from the fundraiser will help the nearly 400 developmentally disabled adults within the San Diego region. Last year’s event was extremely popular so don’t miss out – get your tickets now.
See you at the show!
Darlynne Reyes Menkin is a travel & lifestyle reporter in Southern California who enjoys sharing stories about people who are making a difference in the world. When she’s not writing, she can be found leading tours and Scavenger Hunts. Darlynne and her husband Marc run Where You Want To Be Tours, a company that specializes in hidden San Diego spots.