In an environment as academically intense as Wesleyan University, a student with a learning disability could easily feel isolated.
“It’s an invisible handicap,” said Jeremy Snyder ’13. “A person with a wheelchair, you can see their disability. A person with ADHD, you can’t see how nervous they might be to be called on in class or that they’re going to forget their homework.”
Now Snyder and Julie Platt ’12 are working to start a chapter of Project Eye-to-Eye at the University. Project Eye-to-Eye is a national not-for-profit mentoring program that matches high school or college-age students who have learning disabilities or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (LD/ADHD) with younger students who also have learning disabilities. The goals are to teach and help cultivate self-advocacy and skills for success, increase awareness about learning disabilities, improve the lives of both the mentors and the mentees, transcend labels forced upon them during their childhoods, and create a community of support from shared experiences and learning styles. The learning takes place not in a classroom, however, or even at home, but in an art room; the lessons are modeled to use artistic tools and creativity to increase confidence.
Snyder and Platt have spent the summer organizing the logistics of the chapter with Project Eye-to-Eye Managing Director Marcus Soutra, and Associate Dean of Student Academic Resources Sarah Lazare. They are now ready to start recruiting University students who have experience with learning disabilities.
“We’re looking for the best of the best—those who are going to take this seriously and be involved,” Soutra said. “This isn’t the kind of thing you quit halfway through the year.”
The chapter is looking for about 10 to 12 University students with LD/ADHD to serve as mentors for students at Keigwin Middle School, and others who are eager to be “allies”— those who will work to increase awareness about the program and LD/ADHD students on the University campus and in the Middletown community. The program leaders want those who are serious about the causes, devoted experienced with working with those who have LD/ADHD, and willing to become integral parts of the program. In the coming years, Snyder and Platt hope to expand the program to include more mentors and mentees, but for now, they plan to keep its size small and its goals modest.
“For the first time, we get to be exclusive,” Snyder said. “We’re creating a space where children who have this ‘thing’ that usually marginalizes them now get to have something.”
Unlike many other mentoring programs, Project Eye-to-Eye is not focused around tutoring services. Instead, weekly activities take place in an art room where mentees and mentors produce a project, while improving self-esteem and learning strategies to work with their disabilities. There will be a different task each week, taking place in the middle school. One project, for example, is to design a utility belt for a superhero with a learning disability.
The program was started by students at Brown University in 1998, and now has over 30 chapters at high schools and colleges across the nation. Snyder became involved with the project in 2006 after a visit to the NYU Child Study Center, where his ADHD was diagnosed and evaluated. A doctor who traveled with him to the Center suggested that he start a chapter of Eye-to-Eye at Fieldston School, where he went to high school, and introduced him to the co-founder and Executive Director of the project, David Flink. Since then, Snyder and Flink have become close, and Flink helped him to start the Fieldston chapter in 2008, as well as mentored him through the college application process.
“[Flink] has always asked, ‘When are you going to get that Wesleyan chapter started?’” Snyder said. “So last year, I finally said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get it started.’”
With the help of Flink, Soutra, and Lazare, Snyder started preparing the Wesleyan chapter. Looking for a second coordinator, he sent out an email to students with learning disabilities, and Platt was recruited. This summer, the two coordinators attended a training institute at Brown, along with the coordinators from every other chapter.
“We spent four days learning how to run an art room, how to work with kids, how to organize events, how to talk to parents,” Platt said. “It was a life-changing thing for me.”
“[At the institute], everyone talks about learning disabilities openly,” Snyder added. “It’s the proudest you’ll ever be to be disabled.”
Now, Snyder and Platt are ready to get the ball rolling. They are holding an information session for interested students on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Everywhere I’ve been—high school, Wesleyan—it’s been really hard to meet other people who have learning disabilities,” Platt said. “This program is trying to empower kids, but it’s also empowering us. It’s the opportunity to learn about your own learning ability.”