NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK–David Flink, a tall and energetic 33-year-old, stands in front a classroom and sizes up his audience of fifth and sixth graders as well as college students. They’re a tough crowd, but these are his people.
“Anyone here dyslexic, or ADD?” he asks. There are nods, some hands. “A couple? Do you have dyslexia? I have dyslexia,” David admits. This is something almost everyone in the room has in common; it’s an art-room meeting of grade-schoolers and their college-age mentors, organized by Eye to Eye, an nonprofit organization that brings together students with LD (learning disabilities) and ADD or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
David is the chief empowerment officer and cofounder of Eye to Eye, and he understands the power and importance of reaching and helping these students. “When I was young,” he recalls, “I got labeled LD and ADHD. And when I got those labels, I felt like it explained a little bit why I was struggling in school. I had a word to describe why I wasn’t learning well, but I didn’t actually have the tools to access what I needed.
“Thankfully,” he continues, “I was able to get those tools over the years through a lot of outside intervention. But the easiest way to have gotten those tools would have been from someone who’s a little older and who’d already figured out the process.” In other words, he could have used a mentor.
When David got to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he realized that he could be that mentor. Along with several of his college peers–who also had ADHD and learning disabilities–he formed Eye to Eye.
“The idea of Eye to Eye was really simple,” he explains. “We were just a bunch of college students who had different types of learning disabilities, and we’re going to go hang out with a bunch of fifth and sixth graders to share what we knew about how to access school in the best possible way.”
Which is precisely what they did. Since those first mentor meetings at Brown in 1998, Eye to Eye has grown tremendously. “Right now we have sixty-two chapters in twenty-two states,” David says. “We’re doing well over sixty-thousand hours of community service a year.”
Eye to Eye is not helping a marginal population, either. “Students who have LD/ADHD are every fifth person you meet,” David says, “and we’re twenty percent of our school population. Where Eye to Eye has grown is to reach all of those kids.”
David and his colleagues at Eye to Eye learned over the years that one of the most effective ways to help mentors and mentees engage with each other is through art projects–what he calls “Art Room.”
“We use the art as a way to have a conversation,” he explains. “So the art, as a product, sometimes can look amazing–and sometimes can look like a complete mess.” He laughs. “But what those art projects do is allow the mentor to sit down and find language to describe with a mentee, who’s maybe ten years younger, how they’re able to learn.”
As is often the case with mentorships, both mentee and mentor get something out of the process. “Our typical mentor is a successful student in college or high school with LD/ADHD,” he says. “They have a pretty intensive training on how to be a mentor, but they’re experts on their LD/ADHD. By the time they come and start mentoring in the school system, they have an entire curriculum that will last throughout the year. This helps them first connect with their mentee, then start sharing the skills they need, and, at the end, the mentee actually owns the process and says, ‘This is what I need to do well in school.’”
Other benefits ripple out from Eye to Eye’s mentorships. Often, after they finish sharing their story with their mentees, the mentors want to keep sharing their stories, too. To help facilitate that, Eye to Eye has created a program called the Think Different Diplomats.
The Diplomats are a kind of traveling mentorship program. “These are all college students who go around the country telling their LD stories in classrooms to kids,” David says. “Sometimes they do teacher conferences so that we can help the teachers better understand what their students are going through. And it’s been a very powerful way for storytelling to occur.”
Eye to Eye continues to grow, with an especially strong social media presence, and will soon have another resource to offer: a book coming out from the William Morrow imprint of HarperCollins in August 2014, authored by David. Thinking Differently: A Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities will be, as he puts it, “a manual to empower parents to help their kids be successful with learning disabilities.”
Summing up his group’s multipronged approach, David says, “You have the mentors on the ground, you have the book–which is stuff you can do in your home–and you have a community that’s virtual, on Facebook and on Twitter, so that parents can connect with other parents and kids can connect with other kids in this virtual space that’s very safe but also very open.”
It’s all a part of reaching people who learn differently–in David’s words, “honoring their stories”–and giving them resources and reassurance that they, too, can succeed.
Want to get involved?
Eye to Eye’s mission is to improve the life of every person with a learning disability. We fulfill our mission by supporting and growing a network of youth mentoring programs run by and for those with learning differences, and by organizing advocates to support the full inclusion of people with learning disabilities and ADHD in all aspects of society.
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