Branch Out Alternative Breaks

Creating a community of active & educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice

Destigmatizing learning disabilities

Cesar is a vibrant, curious, and hilarious fourteen-year-old boy.  He is engaged in life and with his friends, athletic, and can beat absolutely anyone in a game of marbles.  Cesar even taught me how to play, and despite my lacking finger-flicking skills, he was very patient in showing me how the game works.  He is funny, smart, protective of his younger sister, and enjoys learning and playing.  He seems like a perfectly normal young boy, but what most people don’t know about him is that he has dyslexia.  Unfortunately, in Belize, learning disabilities often go unnoticed and untreated.  His experienced teacher knew right away that he had a learning disability, and has tried to contact his parents so that he could be sent to a special school for children with learning disabilities.  However, his parents do not want to believe there is anything wrong with their child and refuse to send them to a different school.  I think this comes a lot from the lack of education on learning disabilities, and awareness that they are easily overcome if dealt with in the right manner.   In this case, his parents aren’t involved in his schooling whatsoever, so they probably have little idea that their fourteen-year-old son still cannot read a children’s storybook.

It was difficult to watch Cesar struggle with his reading, especially since he realizes he is the oldest in his class after repeating standard four two times.  It’s hard for him to see how easily it comes to the rest of his classmates, while he still struggles with basic vowel sounds.  He is easily distracted and when I worked individually with him, he much preferred talking to reading.  I let him take talking breaks from our work together, and the stories he told were both shocking and appalling. He told me about his abusive father and stepmother who don’t speak to or interact with him.  He told me about his father, who sent him to jail because he ran away to find his birth mother.  I confirmed this with his teacher, who said that his parents’ actions and un-involvement in school are not unusual for most of the parents at Belize Rural Primary School.  This is just one of many social injustices apparent in Belize.  He needs additional assistance in school, but he is not getting the help he needs.  The cause of this can be traced back to the parents not involving themselves in his schooling, which can be traced back to the fact that they would rather have him helping on their farm than in school, which traces back to the immense poverty in which they live on a daily basis.  This really stuck with me, and I tried to think of ways that we could help, even a little bit, with the lack of knowledge on learning disabilities.  Next year, we plan to bring LOTS of information on learning disabilities, and maybe hold a seminar where parents and teachers can learn about them and we can hopefully help de-stigmatize getting help and going to the special school.

I developed a relationship with Cesar that I will not forget.  He helped me realize how lucky I am to be getting the education that I am, and to be able to read and write fluently.  It is very easy to forget this sometimes, but thinking of Cesar will remind me that I need to take full advantage of the educational opportunities and resources that I have.  On the plane home, I thought about how even though we couldn’t change the school system in the 14 days that we were there, at least I, and many others on the trip, made (hopefully) lasting impacts on the students that we touched.  I am hopeful that Cesar will continue working hard, and if he isn’t transferred to the other school that he will at least try to seek additional help from his teacher.  I’m also going to send him some marbles, because he really is very, very good, and everyone needs some solid self-confidence in some area of their lives.  No matter what else is going on, he always has his marbles.

- Courtney Herbolsheimer

Author: Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! While I am a relative newcomer to you, I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. Some details about my life and role at W&M: I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership in the broad areas of alternative breaks and local anti-poverty initiatives. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. And my pre-W&M life... I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University in 1995. After graduating, I decided to get further into the world of community development and service. I served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I came back to Emory to earn a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I spent a frenetic and exciting year working four jobs - from TA'ing a preaching class with Tom Long, to catering barbecue, to managing a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families. I went on from there to be Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Finally, it was one more stop at Emory - where I served for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. Through all of my professional and volunteer experiences, and life in general, I have seen how connected and interdependent people and communities are everywhere I believe in the power of mutual service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.

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