2020 Smart Kids Youth Award Honorees

With a nod to social distancing, this year’s annual gala for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities was an online affair. Yet not even coronavirus could dampen the celebration of the 2020 Youth Achievement Honorees—an amazing group of young people who, despite their learning challenges, are making a difference in their schools and communities through their remarkable achievements. Meet this year’s honorees…

Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award

Zach Rice, Long Valley NJ

Since Zach’s diagnosis of ADHD in elementary school, he has learned a fundamental truth that has served him well: “Having ADHD means I may have to work harder, but it doesn’t mean I can’t make a huge impact on the world.” And that he’s done, most notably by helping hospitalized children—a cause borne out of his own experience: When Zach was 9 he was diagnosed with a rare and painful bone condition that landed him in the hospital on and off for the next two years. While recovering at home, he realized his only source of comfort in the hospital had been gaming. He made up his mind to start an event to raise money to buy gaming systems for every child’s room in the hospital. Thanks to his ADHD superpower—the ability to hyper-focus, it was all he could think about. The result was the inaugural Action for Distraction 5K on April 27, 2013, which raised enough to buy a gaming system for each of 34 hospital rooms at Goryeb Children’s Hospital. It’s now an annual event, and has raised over $160,000. “Just because I walk with a slight limp and get easily distracted, doesn’t mean I can’t blaze a trail.”

Special Recognition Winner

Valerie Reown, Baltimore, MD

Described by her teachers as “incredibly gifted in the arts,” Valerie is a writer, poet, artist, philosopher, and a “learner of the world.” This multi-talented teen credits her ADHD with shaping her creative journey: “It’s the spark behind my ideas and creative drive.” Her struggle with ADHD has left her with a heightened sense of fairness, justice, and compassion—themes that are central to her artwork. Her artistic achievements coupled with her academic success have earned prestigious internships at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Morgan State University School of Global Journalism, and Center Stage Baltimore. Valerie is currently working on a graphic novel, using her art to promote justice, and looks forward to expanding her knowledge and skills in college.

She recognizes that ADHD will be a lifelong challenge, but believes it has made her more creative, more compassionate, and more persistent.

Junior Award Winner

Carson Guzman, Wayne, NJ

Ever since Carson learned he had severe dyslexia in second grade, he’s used that knowledge to motivate himself to master skills that have enabled him to soar academically and personally. “Having these challenges,” he says, “has changed my life and helped me gain the confidence that I have today.” Embracing his disability, Carson aims to educate others who also struggle with reading & writing; as a featured guest speaker at area reading centers, he shares the message that dyslexia and dysgraphia have given him special advantages. His “can-do” attitude and hard work have won him many honors including acceptance to the National Junior Honor Society.    In addition, he founded a non-profit, NOW READ DYS, to help other students with reading difficulties by collecting and distributing books in backpacks. Carson looks forward to continuing his studies, playing baseball, and inspiring other students.

Honorable Mention Awards

Rebekah Dumont, Nashville, TN

In 4th grade, Rebekah thought she must be “the dumbest person in the class.” She struggled to recall routine information and finish assignments on time. But what she could do was create a usable tri-fold wallet with credit-card slots out of duct tape in the time it took her to brush her teeth. Today Rebekah is an accomplished artist who is already making her mark. Diagnosed with ADHD and an Executive Functioning Disorder, she set out to enlighten others by creating a self-guided installation on ADHD and the effects of social stigmatization. In addition, she is an outstanding flautist, who is actively involved in Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music Youth Orchestra programs and is a principal flautist/piccolo soloist in the Philharmonic Orchestra. This multi-talented teen does not see her ADHD as a disability, but rather as a blessing that has taught her how to utilize her natural creativity to think in ways that may not occur to the average individual: “My ADHD has challenged me in ways others will never understand, but I won’t ever let it define me.”

Caragan Olles, DePere, WI

As a young child with dyslexia, Caragan often came home from school crying. “My self-esteem plummeted at times when teachers told me to work harder when what I really needed was to be taught differently.” After years of intensive tutoring, Caragan was inspired to help children whose families could not afford expensive lessons they needed to succeed. At the age of 10, the young go-getter founded Bright Young Dyslexics, a nonprofit organization that has since changed the landscape for more than 2,500 students with dyslexia, by provided them access to the skills they need to succeed in school. Her dyslexia simulation presentations to local school districts, presented by her Youth Advisory Board, help educate teachers about dyslexia and have now become a national educational resource.  An honor student, member of MENSA, captain of her varsity tennis team, and awarded Wisconsin State Legislature’s Hometown Hero, Caragan will continue trailblazing in college as a Management major with a focus on businesses that give back to the community.

Dayna Rogers, Deer Park, NY

Adopted from a Russian orphanage, Dayna was diagnosed with a vision impairment as an infant. By first grade she had also been diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and dysgraphia and spent the next 8 years in special education classes. Looking for an outlet for her antsy, energetic child, her mother enrolled her in a year-round club swim team. Swimming became her lifeline. As captain and MVP of her high school varsity swim team, Dayna credits the sport for teaching her the “meaning of teamwork and community.” Her extraordinary determination and perseverance led to exiting special-education classes and acceptance in her senior year to a dual enrollment program at a local community college. Now an accomplished student athlete, Dayna will attend SUNY Purchase with 19 college credits and a spot on her college swim team.

Will Tidwell, Hoover, AL

The turning point for Will came when he was diagnosed with dyslexia in middle school. Finally, he had a name for the issues he had been struggling with—and more important, the strategies to deal with them. Armed with those strategies, Will went on to excel in high school, becoming a member of the National Honor Society, Latin Honor Society, the debate team, and varsity soccer team. Along the way, Will discovered a passion for helping students with learning challenges. As an advocate, he’s represented students with LD on his school’s Heritage Panel, created a YouTube channel with videos on developing strength and dexterity, and is working on a video showcasing the role health and exercise play in overcoming disabilities. With plans to major in media and communications in college, his goals include continuing his advocacy for students with LD at the college level, and using film and video to “encourage students to accept their challenges in order to defeat their obstacles.”

Emma Fellows, Fairfield, CT

Diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade, Emma struggled to fit in. She was treated by her peers and teachers as “someone who was out of place and incorrect.” However, each year, as she gained confidence and an understanding of her learning challenges, Emma began to advocate for herself and educate her peers and teachers about dyslexia and the misconceptions surrounding it. Now, as a sophomore, with a support group of teachers and friends, Emma has achieved high honors, is on the volleyball team, runs track, and helps at a local nature center. She founded her school’s Entrepreneur club and started her own farm-to-table summer restaurant, soon to be followed by a food truck this summer. With her implementation of a peer program with learning specialists, she continues to inspire students to grow through their own advocacy and to learn “how to be brave about sharing their personal stories to help themselves and others understand.”