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'The Sky's the Limit' for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities

Published 1:06 am, Friday, February 12, 2010
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Westport resident Jane Ross, for a decade now, has been helping parents who have children with learning disabilities and ADHD through her nonprofit organization, Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, Inc.

Ten years is cause for a celebration, and so, Smart Kids' "The Sky's The Limit" benefit will be taking place at the Westport Country Playhouse on March 12. In prior years, the organization's annual benefit was always in Stamford.

"It's very exciting, being able to celebrate our 10th anniversary in our hometown, and the opportunity to do it at the Westport Country Playhouse was very exciting. It's a wonderful place to be able to have a big party," Ross said.

Ross founded Smart Kids to educate, guide and inspire families of children with learning disabilities or ADHD -- and to change the perception of learning disabilities as a stigmatizing condition.

Ross knows what parents are going through. Years ago, her son, who graduated from college in 2008, struggled in school, starting in the second grade, as a result of dyslexia.

It took Ross, a long-time publishing professional, more than three-and-a-half years to figure out what was wrong and how to get the right help for her son with learning disabilities. She had to persaude the school district to test her son. He didn't get tested until the fourth grade.

It took a long time to get the diagnosis and discover what was affecting her son's learning. It wasn't until the end of her son's fourth grade year that she found out he couldn't read.

"When kids are bright, they learn various ways to compensate for the difficulties," Ross said.

Teachers don't always pick up on the fact that a student is dyslexic, she said. Rather, Ross added, they often view such a student as not trying hard enough -- or as just not very smart. When this happens, a child's self-esteem plummets when he or she can't keep pace with classmates.

Unless children get the specific instruction required to succeed in school, they are at serious risk, according to Ross.

Twenty-five percent of students with learning disabilities drop out of high school, while others receive a non-standard diploma. Children with learning disabilities and ADHD are disproportionately represented among juvenile offenders and adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse. And the unemployment rate of adults with learning disabilities was double that of the general population in 2005.

Ross, through the organization, does her part to try to change these facts. Dyslexia is a major category in the field and 85 percent of children diagnosed with dyslexia have a reading disability, Ross said.

She added that the inability to read has nothing to do with poor instruction or because a child doesn't know English. Rather, their brains are wired differently, according to Ross.

"It's not an issue of intelligence," Ross said.

In fact, their weaknesses in this area of learning to read is often balanced by great strengths in other areas.

"Typically, they have very strong visual and spatial skills," she said. "They're great at building things with Legos."

Also, Ross said, many of the world's best architects, scientists, doctors and engineers were or are dyslexic.

Learning to read, for a child suffering from dyslexia, requires research-based instruction. When a child gets the proper instruction, Ross said, it actually sets up new pathways, and he or she learns to process the information in the same areas of the brain that are used by accomplished readers.

The Smart Kids' March benefit will honor, among others, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz, who grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia. As a child, he was unable to read or write, but as an adult he has taught undergraduate and graduate fiction, poetry and literature classes at higher education institutions that include Columbia University, Tufts and New York University.

In addition to winning a Pulitzer, Schultz is also the winner of an American Academy & Institute of Arts and Letters Award, a National Book Award nomination and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is the founder of The Writers Studio, which is dedicated to the proposition that everyone can learn to write effectively about their own experiences.

The benefit also includes a live auction in which attendees can bid on lunch for four in Los Angeles with Henry Winkler, best known for his role as "The Fonz" on Happy Days. Winkler, who also suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia as a youth, became the new honorary chairman of Smart Kids with Disabilites, Inc., last October. Autographed copies of Winkler's series of books, Hank Zipzer, whose hero's challenges and triumphs every kid with learning disabilities can relate to. Attendees will also be able to bid on a seven-night, eight-day stay at The Summit Resort Hotel on St. Marteen; a long weekend at Timber Creek Townhouse Village in Vermont's Mount Snow ski area; a comprehensive evaluation and advocacy services from The Southfield Center in Darien; a cooking class for eight by AMG Catering and Events; a special night for two at the Metropolitan Opera; rounds of golf at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich and Rolling Hills in Wilton; and a summer weekend at a Stratton Mountain condo in Vermont.

Performing at the playhouse will be pianist and cabaret singer Tracey Lyons, as well as student ensembles from Greens Farms Academy. Hosting the night's festivities will be Dan Malloy, a candidate for governor who is a Smart Kids' honorary board member.

Ross said the Smart Kids' main mission is to provide information and guidance to parents, and giving them hope because "so often when a child flounders in school, some parents give up and some school personnel do also, and when that happens, the outcomes for these kids can be really terrible."

Ross said a parent is usually the first to discover something is wrong.

The organization publishes a newsletter, eight times a year, that is e-mailed to parents, professionals, teachers and schools for children with learning disabilities, in 46 states and abroad. While the newsletter currently only gets delivered to those who pay the modest $25 membership fee, the Smart Kids Web site -- http://www.smartkidswithld.org -- come March, will provde much of its archives free of charge to the public.

Dyslexia and ADHD are just a couple of the conditions that parents turn to Smart Kids for information and guidance about.

The organization has also helped many parents whose children suffer from NLD -- non-verbal learning disorder. These children often learn to read very easily but have difficulty with spatial and motor issues and miss a lot of non-verbal communication. Children with NLD may have a difficult time realizing if they spoke too long, if someone's lost interest, if they're too close to someone, and may not recognize social cues when someone is angry.

The children and parents that Smart Kids has helped with all types of learning disabilities numbers in the thousands, according to Ross. It is very difficult to quantify the impact of Smart Kids. Rather, Ross can tell the difference her organization is making based on positive phone calls, e-mails and feedback on the organization's educational programs via evaluation forms.

Smart Kids -- which has one full-time staff member, numerous volunteers, 30 parent committee volunteers, a professional advisory board and freelance employees -- doesn't receive any government funding, and so fund-raising events like "The Sky's The Limit" benefit at the Westport Country Playhouse are crucial to be able to continue to help others.

The Youth Achievement Award and Honorable Mention Awards will be presented to a number of students from around the country, as will a Junior Achievement Award and Honorable Mentions.

"It's always a huge celebration of these kids' talents and abilities," said Ross, who noted that when such children are young, "their parents are often afraid their children are never going to get there [overcome their disabilities]."

The annual benefit is a testament to the fact that no obstacle is too large to overcome.

Tickets can be purchased for $150, $250 (Patron tickets) and $500 (Benefactor tickets offering reserved seating). For more information and tickets, call (203) 226-6831 or e-mail info@smartkids

withld.org.