2016 Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award Honorees

Each year at our annual gala, Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities recognizes the extraordinary accomplishments of young people who despite their learning challenges—and often because of their personal struggles—are already leaving their mark in their communities and beyond.  Following are this year’s winners:

Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award

Grace Taskinsoy,  Fountain Hills, AZ

Grace struggled to learn to read and write, getting Ds and Fs until she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia as a high school freshman. Wanting to spare other kids from what she endured, Grace helped develop legislation in Arizona to support children with dyslexia. She provided testimony to the state legislature, met with representatives and wrote email blasts to inspire public support for a bill providing education for teachers and support for students. The bill passed 84-1 and was signed into law in April 2015. Not satisfied that she’d done enough, in January of this year the 18-year-old drafted a proclamation signed by Arizona’s governor, declaring January 2016 “Youth Who Learn Differently Awareness Month.”

Special Recognition Winner

Sophia Gross, Conshohocken, PA

Diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in first grade, Sophia Gross, now 18, has worked hard to fight the stigma surrounding LD. She co-founded Opportunity Rise, a business that develops branding and custom apparel, becoming a spokesperson and advocate for children with learning disabilities. With her co-founder, she spoke about “grit” at the University of Pennsylvania Duckworth Lab, presented a 2014 TEDx Talk entitled “Difficulty to Succeed,” and presented at the International Dyslexia Association’s Annual Conference. Sophia will attend Temple University in the fall and will continue to embrace her learning differences while using them to help her excel.

Junior Achievement Award

Caragan Olles, Depere, WI

Caragan’s diagnosis with dyslexia enabled her to get the academic support she needed, and to rebuild her confidence and self-esteem. Learning that many students with dyslexia aren’t able to get what they need due to financial constraints or lack of training and information, she worked with her brother to found Bright Young Dyslexics in March 2013. Bright Young Dyslexics has raised over $35,000 to fund assistive technology and tutoring for K-12 children. In addition, Caragan, 13 has organized dyslexic simulation programs, established dyslexia resource centers at Wisconsin public libraries, and won a Karina Eide Creative Fiction Award. She continues to find new ways to educate and help those touched by dyslexia.

Honorable Mentions

Shaya Barry, Larkspur, CA

Shaya Barry excels in academics, soccer, writing music, singing, and playing the guitar, though that wasn’t always the case. Shaya was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and processing issues in middle school and struggled to keep up. Now 17 and a high school senior, she’s learned how to compensate for her learning disabilities and is thriving in school. Both soccer and music have helped her find an inner focus that keeps her on the path to success.

Jenna Calderaio,  Jupiter, FL

 A successful student and competitive athlete, 17-year-old Jenna has worked hard to overcome her ADHD and specific learning disability. Her parents enrolled Jenna in sports as an alternative therapy to treat her ADHD. Sports led her to become a coordinator for Student ACES (students who exemplify leadership traits in Athletics, Community Service and Education), where she managed 120 members. Currently a high-school senior, Jenna also started a non-profit organization, Tabs4Turtles: She and her friends make and sell bracelets from soda can tabs, with the proceeds going to the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach, FL.

Nathan Hartley, Naperville, IL

Nate Hartley has chosen to use his dyslexia and ADHD as a springboard to serve and empower others. In 2014, Nate founded Uniquely Able, Inc., a company that manufactures wooden frames, magnet boards and magnets, and employs people with special needs. At Uniquely Able, he demonstrates that people with a variety of significant disabilities can succeed and take pride in their work. Nate believes that “if other companies can harness the unique work power of people with disabilities, our world would be a more productive and better place.” In the fall, Nate will attend Michigan State University to study advertising and entrepreneurship.

Taylor Howard, Lutz, FL

Having a learning disability has defined Taylor, she notes, and made her into the successful student and person she is today. Now 18, Taylor is a member of the National Honor Society and an active participant in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC). This year, she was selected to receive the Superior Cadet Medal, awarded annually by the Department of the Army to recognize the top cadet in every high school and college ROTC program. Taylor’s leadership skills coupled with her care and compassion have earned her high honors in school, her community, and in the JROTC.

Zachary Jordan, Palatine, IL

Zachary, 18 struggled with ADHD and OCD but found his passion in debate and computer programming. He was chosen as the captain of his debate team by unanimous faculty selection. He has won awards and become a mentor for new debate team members. While maintaining outstanding grades, Zachary also started his own company, Top Box Software, and created a website for cancer education, www.thecureitproject.com.

Travis Koester Wadesville, IN

Through determination and hard work, 18-year-old Travis has not let the rare condition that significantly affects his processing hold him back. Instead, it inspires him to help others. While it takes Travis extra time to complete his work, the result of ACC (Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum), he has been successful academically and with extracurricular activities. Travis is the founder and President of Ping Pong for Poverty, sponsoring ping pong tournaments to raise money and collect food for charity. In addition, he has used his knowledge as a dairy farmer to work with local business owners, who donate steers to supply meat to local food banks.