Student Starts Nonprofit, Just Like Me
By Christine Vaughan
At 16, Lyndcee Barragato made a phone call that sounds like the makings of a John Hughes cult classic. She called the mother of one of her sophomore peers, Caleb, asking if he would be her date to the winter formal.
Caleb’s mother burst into tears, “I never thought Caleb would get this experience.”
Caleb has Down Syndrome. That winter formal was his first dance and it featured all of the quintessential high school details -- coordinating outfits, a limo, dinner out with a large group, and the signature posed couple’s photo.
Lyndcee, now studying communication at CSUSM, met Caleb while working as a teaching assistant in the special education classroom of her high school. It was her first time being around kids with different abilities – but what she found would later become the moniker of her nonprofit because students like Caleb are indeed Just Like Me.
But it was the reaction she got from that phone call that planted a seed.
The experience was eye-opening for Lyndcee, who had previously assumed the students with special needs had social activities or programs they participated in after school or on the weekends.
She began asking the students what they did on the weekend. To her surprise, nothing. She began investigating programs that might exist – "Surely, they must exist," she remembers thinking. But no.
“I wanted to be the one who changed that,” she said.
Starting from humble beginnings with the support of her best friend, and their mothers, Lyndcee founded Just Like Me in her hometown of Dana Point to provide social enrichment programs where, Lyndcee says, friendships are made, fun is had and being you is celebrated. The nonprofit serves teens and young adults ages 13-24 who have autism, Down Syndrome, cerebal palsy, Williams Syndrome and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Recent Just Like Me activities have included bowling nights, beach days, themed dances, yoga classes, craft nights and outdoor excursions. Lyndcee and her team of volunteers even helped get a wheelchair-accessible ocean paddleboard to allow one student with cerebal palsy to get out on the water. During that outing, a gray whale swam just feet away from the team in the Dana Point Harbor.
Last year, the nonprofit was officially recognized as a 501c3.
“I surprised myself,” she said. “I wrestled with the timing, wondering, ‘should I wait? Is doing this while in college really the best thing?’ ”
The answer of her heart: yes.
“I didn’t want another kid missing out," she said. I didn’t want to go live my life to its fullest while others are feeling left on the fringe.”
Being the founder, Lyndcee is learning a lot firsthand while also putting her communication studies immediately into practice. From grant writing, fundraising, marketing, finance, web design, social media, advocacy, business operations and event planning, Lyndcee is responsible for it all.
She balances those responsibilities while being a full-time student at CSUSM and working part time at a local restaurant. Lyndcee is hoping to expand Just Like Me and offer a local chapter in North San Diego and eventually Los Angeles with the help of volunteers. After she graduates, Lyndcee has her sights on USD’s masters program in nonprofit management.
"These teens and young adults have changed my life and opened my eyes in ways I never would have imagined," she said. "Everyone should have access to a fulfilled life, and I am making it my mission to bridge that gap."