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Valedictorian: How Perseverance and Mentoring Have Guided Me

The following are excerpts from essays written by a graduating senior in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children (JSTSIC) Program, a college readiness program that is a partnership between the School District of Palm Beach CountyTake Stock in Children Palm Beach County and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. We will feature other student authors in the coming weeks.

My family has a history of overcoming struggles. My grandfather began working in the fields at the tender age of four. My father started working at the age of six. My mother never completed any education beyond 6th grade due to the family’s financial difficulties.

I have had to overcome difficulties since the day I was born. Surrounded by sugarcane and wild rabbits that run the fields in the small rural town of Belle Glade, I was a premature baby, with unhealthy weight and lack of interest in eating. Although my mother tried her best to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy, due to extreme financial distress, she often went without nutritious food.

Gema Cervantes holding laptop and flowers

When I was two months old, I contracted viral meningitis due to weak health and poor environmental surroundings. When I was two years of age, once again, I was rushed to the hospital for surgery from an appendicitis. I later suffered from dehydration right after the surgery. I had extended hospital stays since birth throughout my childhood. The medical bills would often begin to accumulate one after another, and my parents often had difficulty keeping up with them. At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with ADHD and Myopia after years of struggling to do well in school and being inflicted with chronic headaches. I had to be placed in the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program for the rest of my elementary years because the effect of meningitis in my brain had caused me to have a learning disability.

The lack of financial stability in my family is directly linked to my family members being unable to attain an education beyond the 6th grade. This fact, in turn, has created a generational chain of inability to achieve an education and consequently, poor health.

One of the differences that has turned me into a strong leader is the strong parents that I have. Both wanted me to have a better chance in life and crossed to a foreign nation in the pursuit of that better life. They wanted me to have what they did not have. They continually remind me never to let my opportunities to learn go to waste. Unlike my parents, I can attend high school and finish college thanks to Take Stock in Children. They have talked to me throughout my high school life to work hard in school so that I don’t have to go through what my parents went through.

During high school, I have participated in over ten extracurricular activities and have strived for excellence in academics. I am President of the Pros and Consequences of Life Club which serves to promote awareness of HIV, STDs and academic focus. I am also President of the Spanish Book Club which drives students to success in their foreign language courses and fundraisers to provide the homeless with dental supplies. I am a mentor with the ESOL Mentoring program in which students are pushed to overcome the stresses and anxieties of learning a foreign language, which I have experienced myself.

My goal in five years is to practice primary family medicine in rural areas in Palm Beach County like Belle Glade. My first step is by finishing my undergraduate degree at Florida State University.

I would like to return twice a month to Glades Central High School to support organizations such as the ESOL Mentoring Program and the Women of Tomorrow to continue empowering women. It would also be my greatest desire to help students with whom I share the struggle and anxiety of learning a second language. I would continue to mentor students from the ESOL mentoring program and to establish an organization that mentors students with the lowest grades at Glades Central High School and with learning disabilities. Being able to help establish this organization would be meaningful to me because I have a learning disability and understand the discipline it takes to control such a disability. My third goal would be to support Take Stock in Children as a volunteer throughout my three years of medical school.

Gema Cervantes wearing graduation cap and gown

Through the growth I have gained from hardships I have encountered and the mentoring support received from TSIC, I will graduate with my AA degree from Palm Beach State College by high school graduation. I will be graduating high school as valedictorian.

My parents may not have received education more than the 6th grade, but they taught me to live with integrity and honesty. My goal is to continue to serve my community, to become the best person I can be, determined to meet my goals and to serve.

Gema Cervantes is a senior at Glades Central High School in Florida and a participant in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children (JSTSIC) Program.

Striking Out Stigma – Seeing Learning Disabilities as Simple Learning Differences

Middle school is often a time of exploring and expressing one’s individuality and autonomy. However, peers, teachers, and families begin playing a pivotal role in identity development. For students who learn differently, social pressures are often compounded by a sense of isolation resulting from stigma. The stigma surrounding learning disabilities and attention disorders can keep many students from seeking the tools they need to be successful.

Ryan Blackwell wearing Eye To Eye shirt

Ryan, a current high schooler at AIM Academy, recounted his middle school struggles with ADHD. He found it impossible to keep up.

 “It was in fourth-grade that I realized that something wasn’t right,” Ryan shared. “I would get assignments, and I would just leave them for weeks because I didn’t understand and I didn’t want to go ask my teachers for help.”

 Even though his grades were slipping dramatically, Ryan was still too embarrassed to ask for help. Ryan’s uneasiness about reaching out came from misconceptions that students who learn differently are often confronted with.

Research measuring public perceptions of learning differences revealed that half of the general population, including a third of educators, believe that learning disabilities are actually laziness (Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, 2010). Several more studies took those perceptions a step further and demonstrated that the stigma associated with learning disabilities and attention disorders adversely affects educational expectations, academic outcomes, and emotional wellbeing (Crosnoe, Riegle-Crumb, & Muller, 2007; Shifrer, 2013; Al-Yagon, 2015; Feurer & Andrews, 2009; Lackaye, Margalit, Ziv, & Ziman, 2006; Maag & Behrens, 1989; Margalit, 1991; Margalit & Raviv, 1984; Wiener & Daniels, 2016).

When Ryan entered AIM Academy, he discovered Eye to Eye – a mentoring program working to eliminate the stigma of learning disabilities and attention disorders by reframing and celebrating them instead as learning differences. The program pairs students who learn differently in middle school with their high school and college-aged counterparts. Ryan was hesitant to join.

“I was like, ‘I can’t do that,’ because for some reason I couldn’t see myself impacting kids’ lives.” Despite his doubts, Ryan gave mentoring a shot.

“A lot of the kids that I would mentor suffered bullying because of their [learning disabilities] and ADHD. They were bullied a lot for the fact that they didn’t learn like everybody else, that they couldn’t interact the same way, and that they couldn’t impact the classroom and the atmosphere that’s in that classroom.”

He decided to share his own story with the mentees and become a shoulder for them to lean on.

Three students wearing Eye To Eye shirts

“I wasn’t able to see it at first, but every time they’d see me the next week they’d say two words: ‘thank you.’ I would think, ‘Thank you? I didn’t do anything,'” he said, recalling his surprise at their gratitude.

However, his school chapter advisor assured him the difference he made was immeasurable. For children and adults who learn differently, the path towards self-acceptance starts with breaking stigma at the individual level. Once someone knows they are in the company of another person who learns differently, they can begin to break down their self-stigma and share their own experiences with others. And when someone shares their story, they become empowered. Empowered individuals inspire positive feedback, and that feedback fosters a supportive community.

Ryan admitted, “When that kid just kept saying thank you, I found myself going home and crying because there is a greater community even outside of the one that we have at Eye to Eye.”

This month, Eye to Eye is celebrating “Strike Out Stigmonth.” The month-long friendly competition between Eye to Eye chapters nationwide is designed to spread awareness, strengthen bonds between mentors and mentees, and connect participants to the local and national Eye to Eye community of supporters and allies. Follow Eye to Eye on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to view the stigma-busting competition. To learn more about Eye to Eye, please visit www.eyetoeyenational.org.

David Flink is a social movement leader on the front lines of the learning rights movement. He imagines a world where one day all learners will be seen, heard and valued. Being diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD at a young age, he later committed his life to students with learning differences. He serves as Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye.

3 Top Myths About Kids with Learning Disabilities (LD)

Learning disabilities are more common than most people think, but widely misunderstood. It is widely believed by educational psychologists that more than one in 10 people in the general population (children and adults) have a learning disability.

  1. Myth: Learning disabilities occur in people with low intelligence. In fact: a learning disability can only be diagnosed in someone who has average or higher cognitive ability. Many famously successful people have had a learning disability including Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg and Albert Einstein. Sometimes the LD temporarily prevents people from believing in themselves and demonstrating their true intelligence, but never precludes a person from being successful.Teacher and two students working at their desks smiling
  2. Myth: Learning disabilities are caused by a lack of parental involvement or from a child watching too much television. Reality: Learning disabilities often run in families suggesting there a genetic link between this disability and the person affected. While researchers have found no specific gene that is responsible for either dyslexia (reading issues) or dyscalculia (math issues), findings do show many of the genes associated with dyslexia also seem to be linked to math challenges. This science supports the everyday experiences of teachers and parents who notice that children with reading challenges often have math challenges as well.Two students hanging from playground bars
  3. Myth: Learning disabilities affect more boys than girls. The truth is that while 66 percent of all children diagnosed with a LD are boys, experts understand that learning disabilities affect both genders equally. Girls often escape identification because they often outwardly show less behavioral indicators of learning struggles.

As Headmaster of Landmark East School, a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, it is inspiring to me and my staff to work with students with learning disabilities every day; to witness and be a part of the remarkable growth and change that occurs in these young people every day; to see bright futures and capable young people who truly have no limits.

Stigma Hates Company: 5 Ways to Challenge Stigma as a Community

Mentor working with student drawingAmong the challenges in contemporary education is the fight against stigma aimed at the 1 in 5 who learn differently. Stigma in education can keep a child struggling. However, we all have the tools to make a difference. The 1 in 5 who learn differently can be among the most powerful voices in fighting stigma, and in bringing along the 4 in 5 as well, changing the trajectory of all learners.

When you tell your story to others, you are no longer alone. You have an amazing community at your side. Something that was once faceless now has a face. Something that was invisible is now visible. Storytelling is one of the most empowering tools in the fight against stigma.

If you have a story to tell about learning differences—whether it’s your own life story or the story of a loved one—make a point of sharing it. All it takes is 2 minutes. Here are some pointers to consider in your daily acts of challenging stigma.

Mentor and young mentee1) Bust common myths. Learning disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia have absolutely nothing to do with native intelligence. Pervasive myths about learning disability—myths that keep kids struggling in the back of a classroom in silence—need to be broken. Don’t be afraid to confront stigma when you see it.

2) Invite people in. Once someone knows they are in the company of different learners, they can comfortably and purposefully address their individual challenges in community. The more we share, the more everyone will know about the 1 and 5 among us. Stigma hates company, so let’s bring everybody in on the conversation.

Two young men holding up a sign3) Language counts. The flames of every movement are sparked by the unacceptability of certain language. We all know deeply hurtful words that were once, sadly, commonplace. A piece of providing a successful education for all students is gaining fluency in the language of learning and attention issues. When we tell our authentic stories of the lived experience of LD / ADHD, we will change the language. Phrases like “ADD moment,”  “I’m numbers dyslexic” and “People with learning disabilities are just lazy” will be a thing of the past.

4) Highlight success. Hollywood directors, senators, arctic explorers, self-made millionaires—some of the most prominent and daring people out there have succeeded with a learning disability at their side. Scott Kelly, the first astronaut to spend a year in space, recently released an interview about his struggles with attention issues as a kid. There are countless examples of adults who have succeeded not in spite of their learning styles, but because of them!

group photo of students holding up their hands5) Become an ally. Teachers, parents, scoutmasters, firefighters, school guidance counselors, soccer coaches, software developers, librarians. These are all potential allies and advocates. In fact, 1 in 5 are likely to have a learning or attention issue themselves!

You might be the “4 in 5.”

You might be or become “LD /ADHD and Proud to Be.”

You or a loved one might have an undiagnosed learning difference.

No matter who you are, our community is never more than one voice, one face, one mind away. Share your story, listen to a story. With stories we build community, and in community, stigma has no place.