A Chat with The Gray Academy OC's Dana Tompkins

Dana Tompkins, director of The Gray Academy OC and her mom, Brenda Harmon.
Dana Tompkins, director of The Gray Academy OC and her mom, Brenda Harmon.

This Fall, we had the privilege to partner with Volume 1 Members Michelle Linovitz and Amy Berisha (Amy Berisha Aesthetics) to host a Jennifer Fisher shopping event to support The Gray Academy OC

Opened in September 2023 by Dana Tompkins, The Gray Academy Orange County is a non-profit TK-8 school structured to meet the complex needs of children with moderate to severe disabilities. Modeled after The Gray Academy in Santa Monica, The Gray Academy OC opened its doors in September 2023, just nine months after Tompkins kickstarted the project. 

The lightning-fast timeline, like the project itself, was inspired by Tompkins’ son,who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after birth. When searching for educational options that could meet his complex needs, Dana discovered a gap in Orange County’s special education. 

Eager to learn more about The Gray Academy OC and share its essential mission with our community, we chatted with Dana Tompkins… 

TSG Newport Beach: We know that your discovery of Orange County’s gap in special education fueled your search for an appropriate alternative for your son, Bennett. Can you speak more to how this led to The Gray Academy OC?
Dana Tompkins: My son Bennett suffered a birth injury and, as a result, has cerebral palsy and global developmental delays. I struggled to find schools in our community able to meet Bennett’s complex needs. Then, I came across The Gray Academy in Santa Monica, a school for moderate to severely disabled children, and it was just what I was looking for. The Gray Academy combines specialized education with top-notch therapies in an exceptionally supportive environment. The founder, Kristen Gray, agreed to mentor me as I opened up an Orange County branch of their school. Just one year after our initial meeting, we opened The Gray Academy OC!

TSG Newport Beach: What was the process of opening The Gray Academy OC like?
Dana Tompkins: We began our journey last December with a holiday fundraiser featuring a performance by David Foster and Katherine McPhee. The amount of community support was overwhelming. We raised nearly $400k to split between the Santa Monica school and our new OC branch. In June, we hosted a really fun “Play for Gray” pickleball fundraiser at The Newport Beach Tennis and Pickleball Club. It is touching how the Orange County community has rallied around our cause. Even families not directly affected by disability can relate to the idea that every child deserves to attend school and have the support that will allow them to thrive.

TSG Newport Beach: Let’s talk more about what having an Orange County branch of The Gray Academy means for our community…
Dana Tompkins: Having The Gray Academy OC enhances our community. Just like having great restaurants, shopping, parks, and highly-ranked schools, being able to say that we have this wonderful school equipped to meet the needs of some of our community’s most vulnerable children puts us ahead of many other areas in our state and country. And for OC families of children with disabilities, this school is not only something they need, it is something they deserve.

TSG Newport Beach: What are the immediate needs of the Gray Academy?
Dana Tompkins: Families with children attending The Gray Academy OC are in the process of trying to secure funding through their local school districts for their child to attend The Gray Academy OC. It is of utmost importance that we continue to fundraise in order to provide them our unique environment, including a specialized curriculum, one-on-one support, and world-class therapies.

TSG Newport Beach: What does the future of The Gray Academy look like?
Dana Tompkins: We have a lot of exciting new developments in this first year at The Gray Academy OC. We are looking forward to hosting an occupational therapy intensive for our students in a few weeks. In addition to traditional therapies, we are expanding our students’ enrichment opportunities to include music, art therapy, and yoga. We are also building an accessible community garden where our kids can plant seeds and watch them grow!

TSG Newport Beach: What is the best way for locals to support The Gray Academy OC?
Dana Tompkins: We encourage everyone to follow along with us on Instagram for updates about our programming and fundraising efforts. And, of course, donations can be made online

Follow along with The Gray Academy OC on Instagram for the latest updates and information on fundraising. Give directly to the school at donorbox.org/thegrayacademyoc.