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Personal Stories

The Learning Brook: Lighting the Way for Others

By: Mary Beth Castell
Mary Beth Castell and her daughter

My husband and I always said our daughter had a style of her own. She's the 3 year old who said "flutterby" instead of "butterfly", the 4 year old who wrote her name backwards, the 5 year old kindergartner who could discuss current events but could not tell time, tie her shoes, or rhyme. During those years, we didn't give it much thought. It was all part of the package that made her unique. After all, she was very bright, had a colorful personality, and solid self-esteem. She was a gift to others.

Within six weeks of entering first grade her packaging quickly began to unravel. Reading was very difficult and there was nothing easy about writing. In fact, all tasks associated with language were arduous. As a former elementary school teacher with a Master's Degree, I found this quite troublesome. Homework was stressful and we spent seemingly endless hours trying to read the most basic 3 and 4 letter words on her weekly word lists. While she could talk up a storm on almost any subject you could not read her written stories. Her writing was illegible. After 3 months of struggling, we KNEW something was very wrong. After all, previous tests placed her in the gifted range and she put forth more effort than any child I'd ever taught during my years in the classroom.

Her teacher's response was one of "wait and see." We heard it could be "developmental lag" as our daughter was one of the youngest in her class. It was even suggested that she might repeat first grade. We were urged to "work harder" at home. Our daughter's spirit quickly deflated. She had frequent stomach aches and she dreaded going to school. This was not acceptable. It became evident she was not going to get the help she needed in the classroom. Thus, we began our search.

I enrolled in a phonics class for educators where I was taught a multi-sensory program for teaching reading and writing that was developed by a local teacher. I implemented this program at home and worked with my daughter for hours each night. I even went into her classroom and taught parts of the program to her classmates so she wouldn't feel so alone. It wasn't quick or easy. It was, however, fun and effective! She began to read words. She learned more easily and began to catch up with the others in her class. Her self-esteem was on the upswing and we celebrated every success!

Second grade was delightful. She had a young, energetic teacher with a "hands-on" approach to learning. This was my daughter's style of learning! She was very motivated and fell in love with school again. Never mind all the letter reversals, misspelled words, and problems memorizing math facts; she could read the basic primers. We did it. Or so we thought.

Third grade hit like a ton of bricks! More difficult vocabulary, additional math facts, cursive writing, and longer spelling lists quickly lead to frustration. Within weeks I called her teacher who responded, "I think she has some sort of processing problem." I'll never forget the words. Parental instinct had told me for years that something was just not right. Why hadn't I acted on it sooner?! Here we were, two educators who could not put a finger on what it was. It was a mystery to us.

A call to our pediatrician lead to an appointment with the Neurology department at one of Cleveland's finest Children's Hospitals. While we waited weeks for the appointment, my daughter struggled through her days. She'd pray she didn't have to read aloud and writing and spelling assignments were always met with a lot of red ink. Again, her confidence was diminishing. Two long months later we finally had an explanation for why, with above average intelligence, she struggled so much. She was diagnosed dyslexic. What a great relief!

I could hardly wait to tell my daughter. After reading the few dyslexia fact sheets we were given, it was very clear. I sat her down and told her the good news. I explained that the reasons she had specific struggles actually has a name, dyslexia. She cried. To my surprise, not tears of joy but tears of sadness. She yelled. She was angry. I stumbled as I was shocked by her responses. Her first words were, "Now I know I'm different!" Oh, she knew for years and I had just confirmed it with the doctor's report. I cried with her. I cried the pain of a parent seeing their child hurt so deeply and feeling so helpless.

She continued, "It's not fair!" I knew I would do everything in my power to help make it easier for her. Interestingly, through her tears she had one simple request, "I want to meet someone else with dyslexia. I want to meet another kid like me." I promised her I'd find someone.

It's often said, "You should never make a promise you can't keep." The words were ringing in my head as nearly a month had passed and I still had not found another child to introduce her to. This was not due to lack of effort. On the contrary, upon getting the diagnosis we immediately set out on a mission to learn all we could about all aspects of dyslexia. We headed off to our daughter's school to get some information only to be met by a staff that was hoping we would provide the information about how best to meet our daughter's educational needs. Hours spent on the phone with local agencies provided little help and confirmed the fact there was no local group for children with dyslexia. It was evident that while information and support was abundant for many other disabilities, very little was being done to meet the needs of families living with dyslexia. Just getting information to educate ourselves was difficult. We still needed to educate her teachers. This all seemed inconceivable to us as conservative estimates indicate that approximately 15% of the population is dyslexic!

We turned our efforts elsewhere. We did find a starting point with our local branch of the International Dyslexia Association and we became members. We found good, basic information and local members provided us with emotional support and guidance. We were encouraged to dig deeper. We found comprehensive information on line. There's a wealth of information at such websites as LD Online, a true godsend to families. Other sites such as Schwablearning.org and hellofriend.org proved invaluable. Personal contacts were established within these organizations and I received a great deal of guidance from key individuals, for which I am most grateful. They encouraged me to forge ahead and make a difference in my community. Most of all, an unfulfilled promise to my daughter kept me marching on.

The day things changed from thinking and talking to truly acting and making a difference, was March 1, 2002. I attended my first dyslexia symposium and was stunned to see a large room filled with books, manipulative, and language programs all designed to help children living with dyslexia. Where was all of this 'hiding'? Why were these materials not readily available in our schools, libraries, or bookstores? Needless to say, I spent more than a few dollars that day. I kept thinking of all the other families who didn't attend. How do they access this information? Additionally, these materials are quite expensive.

The journey to enlightenment ought not have so many obstacles. That evening I approached my husband with the idea of opening a resource center offering materials and support to other families who were going through what we were. He agreed immediately. By this point, we learned our story was not unique at all. There are many other parents who are also searching. Local organizations had not only confirmed the need for an information center, but many had pleaded for me to act upon it. I was fired up and ready to go! Full steam ahead!

What happened from that day is nothing short of miraculous. When you set your mind to something and pour your heart and soul into it, anything truly is possible. My family is living proof. I had a clear vision of what I wanted. I shared this with my husband, son and daughter. I wanted to create a non-profit foundation that would operate a resource center. I wanted a sort of gathering place where families would come and share, connect with others and get information to expand their knowledge base. I did not want it to be institutional looking or cold. I did not want it to look like a typical library or a classroom. It must be warm and inviting and beckon you to stay awhile. We'd house the most comprehensive collection of up-to-date information about dyslexia and related learning differences. We'll call our center "The Learning Brook."

My husband took care of the business aspects and our twelve year old son took care of the technological support. If it needed created on the computer, our son did it. I continued researching, gathering information and requesting donations; monetary as well as educational materials. During the weeks ahead our daughter also worked very hard. She had decided to do a required 3 month research project culminating with a 30 minute presentation on nothing other than, dyslexia. As she began to better understand what dyslexia was, she felt much better. She utilized some of the books that had begun coming in for our Resource Center. She was fascinated with what she was learning. Her embarrassment and nervousness were replaced with confidence and strength. She wanted to teach others. A true self-advocate. Her presentation was incredible and very well received by her teachers and classmates.

The most important thing to come out of her independent study was her empowerment. The most exciting thing to come from her research was meeting another dyslexic person. Through a series of events she met Ann Bancroft, the famous polar explorer and lecturer. It was through a video on learning differences called "Ennis' Gift" that she learned about Ann who is also dyslexic. She related very much to her story. She searched for more information on-line and found a website where she e-mailed Ann. As luck would have it, Ann was coming through Cleveland in a matter of weeks. Arrangements were made and Jennifer spent several inspirational hours with Ann Bancroft on a sunny day in June while Ann was on her Great Lakes Expedition. Wow. It was the meeting of a lifetime! The time she spent with Ann clearly changed her. It is hard to put into words. She still communicates with Ann and she is much stronger for it. But that is all part of my daughter's incredible story. She wants to write a book about it all. I have no doubt she will one day!

As all of the whirlwind surrounded our daughter, The Learning Brook was taking shape. On paper anyway. We were incorporated in the state of Ohio and were formally recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It was July and we were able to start soliciting donations. My husband and I could no longer cover all of the necessary expenses so we reached out to family, friends and colleagues and pleaded for help in making our dream become reality. We organized a major fundraiser, an auction and dinner that 99 people from Greater Cleveland attended; many of whom we had never met before. We will forever be grateful to every one of those individuals who helped us open our doors. Within 4 months this initial group generously contributed over $15,000 to The Learning Brook. We could now buy furnishings, office supplies, make our lease payment and most importantly, purchase the vast array of materials about dyslexia and related learning differences that was so desperately needed. We could never have done it without them. The orders were placed. Our story was covered by the Cleveland newspaper and an opening day was set.

On October 28, 2002, exactly one year after our daughter's initial testing appointment, The Learning Brook opened its doors to the public. Dozens of families throughout Greater Cleveland were waiting. We were deluged with calls, e-mails and visitors. Each day brings new inquiries and new visitors. Support and activity groups are forming. We're thrilled to say many children are finding new friends. True to her dream, our daughter has started a 'club' for kids with learning differences. She and I recently hosted the first "Saturday Social" for kids. The theme was "my gifts and talents." You see, my daughter has always been a gift to others. Her ribbons are once again brightly colored. As I looked around the center, her eyes and the eyes of her new friends shone so brightly and their smiles were huge. They lit up The Learning Brook. May we continue to light the way and become a bright spot for other families for years to come! Through the generosity of others I truly believe we will.

Learning Brook Center, Willoughby, OH

For more information on the Learning Brook visit their web site.

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