2019 Smart Kids Youth Award Honorees

Each year Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities honors a group of outstanding young people who, despite their learning challenges, are making a difference in their schools and communities through their remarkable achievements. Following are this year’s honorees:

Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award

Zachary Dillon, Tecumseh, MI

For years Zack struggled with ADHD, describing ADHD as “a constant, nagging monster. I hated the way I was, that I had no self-control or discipline.” But after a change in medication, Zack’s grades improved dramatically. He volunteered to help photograph a varsity football game, finding instead that he had been recruited to use high-tech broadcast equipment for live coverage, and a passion was born. Now a senior, he is a Sports Producer for LISDTV and has won a National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Award, better known as a “student Emmy” in addition to an award from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters for Best Daily Sportscast. He plays six instruments, works part-time, and is being recruited by multiple colleges to play football. He now says, “I could not be more thankful for who I am, and for having adapted to using ADHD as a tool for success.”

Special Recognition Winners

Caleb Hall, New York, NY

Caleb, 17, has done battle with LD, including dyslexia since the 4th grade. As Student Council President and a natural leader, he “makes everything better, smarter, funnier, happier.” Described as a student who “comes around once or twice in a lifetime,” he is cited for his fearlessness in facing challenges, humility, and talent on stage, where he has starred in every play. Caleb says his disability has made him aware of his strengths in technology. He has harnessed his creativity for an array of projects, including several for the Adaptive Design Association where he has developed customized furniture for kids with physical disabilities. He plans to major in Interactive Digital Media in college to help people who “face physical, social, and work-related challenges.”

Julia Wakin, Princeton, NJ

“I am dyslexic, and I will not let my learning disability stop me from being who I want to be and from achieving what I want to do in this life,” says Julia. Her many achievements demonstrate a strong work ethic and unyielding commitment to reaching her goals. She is a high honors student, skilled athlete, accomplished violinist, singer, actress, and valued leader of several service-based community groups, including a K-9 support team that trains service dogs for disabled persons. She also serves as an Eye to Eye chapter leader and as a school peer leader, mentoring younger students in academics and social life. While she excels in all these areas, what she values most is her ability to get back up when she falls, and to never give up.

Honorable Mention Awards

Kayla Bissell, Eagleville, PA

Kayla, who used to feel “defeated and dumb” from hours spent struggling with schoolwork, credits her 6th-grade teacher, Ms. Mullen, with recognizing the signs of her disabilities in reading comprehension and auditory processing as well as inattentive ADHD. Thanks to an IEP and accommodations, her self-esteem and academic confidence have flourished, and she has learned to advocate for herself. She’s shown she can succeed in the most challenging classes, despite teachers questioning her placement in them. Now a member of the National Honor Society, captain of the district-champion varsity cheer team, and recipient of numerous recognitions for leadership and scholarship, Kayla holds two jobs and serves her community–particularly special needs students–in a variety of ways. Her goal is to work with students who have disabilities, hoping to “be another child’s Ms. Mullen” and continue spreading her hard-won inspiration. 

Trinity Brubaker, Longmont, CO

A talented archer, Trinity found her path the first time she picked up a bow and arrow. This 12th grader reports that archery has allowed her to understand what it feels like to find focus, “a moment in time where the world stops spinning.”Trinity was adopted and is diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, RAD and APD. Even so, she has remained positive and pursued her goals. Among her many accomplishments, she is the 2018 Colorado Cadet Girls Barebow State Champion, Junior Olympic Archery Development Team member, a 2018 Junior Olympic Archery Division champion of the year and state champion. A talented artist, Trinity is exploring a career in Art Therapy and was accepted to all five colleges she applied to.

Donnie Minor Jr., Naperville, IL

As a young child, Donnie displayed many signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder. After interventions and hard work, he moved beyond that diagnosis but continued to struggle with ADHD. Despite ongoing social challenges, he is deeply committed to helping others through volunteering with organizations that provide basic needs to local disadvantaged families. In addition to working at food pantries, he developed a program to provide school uniforms and supplies to low-income middle-school students. This program has expanded and now ensures that all families at the middle school receive a Thanksgiving dinner. Donnie acknowledges that his community service has given his life meaning and has motivated him to meet high academic standards. “I thank my obstacles for preparing me to be the greatest Donnie Minor, Jr. that I can be, and continue to find joy in life knowing that no matter what I face, I will always be a conqueror.”

Walter Henry, Syosset, NY

Reflecting on his experiences as a student with learning challenges, Walter vividly remembers “being separated.” In sports, however, that was not the case. Sailing since the age of eight, Walter explains, “On the water, my disability became an advantage.” Having to work harder, focus more, and attend to things others took for granted, he developed a “peripheral awareness” that served him well on and off the water. In his coach’s words, “Sailing allowed him to demonstrate his initiative, talent, and determination.” Walter’s years of practice and perseverance have earned him well-deserved success: He represented the US at the 2018 Youth World Championship, and won the gold medal in the 420 Class. He also won the International Yacht Racing Union World Youth Sailing Championship Trophy–the highest, most coveted honor in international youth sailing, and Walter brought it home to the USA for the first time in history. “No matter where I am, the wind and the water will always be with me, and my adventures have only just begun.”