December 4, 2023
Each spring Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities hosts its annual gala, the highlight of which is the recognition of outstanding young people who in spite of—or often because of—their learning differences are achieving great things in school, their communities, and in life. This year’s winners of the Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Awards are a varied group of teens, whose accomplishments are impressive and inspirational by any measure.
Youth Achievement Award Winner
Gracie Woo, Centennial, CO
Challenges: Diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety in third grade, Grace has learned to manage her learning differences through years of trial and error, learning which accommodations and strategies work best (yoga, exercise, and organizational systems) to gain control over a “brain that goes a hundred miles a minute, at war with my urge to move and my need to focus.”
- Academically Grace is a member of the National Honor Society of High School Scholars
- Her passion for performing has been realized through participation in the international Thespian Society; singing in the Colorado All-State Choir; dancing and competing with a top-tier dance company; and acting in regional and professional productions as well as productions at her high school, Denver School of the Arts.
- She is a recipient of the United States Congressional Award for co-founding Bags of Joy, which decorates and donates lunch bags to Meals on Wheels, and was featured as the Denver 7 Everyday Hero for her work with Everybody Dance, a charity group that distributes gently-used dance items for those in need.
Hopes & Dreams: Gracie’s goals include becoming a Broadway actress.
Special Recognition Winner
Carson Gilmore, Blacksburg, VA
Challenges: When Carson was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD in 6th grade, it came as a relief: he finally understood why school had been such a struggle. With the help of family and teachers, over time Carson developed behavioral strategies that allowed him to excel academically.
Accomplishments: Today, he considers his ability to “hyper-focus” as a strength, and uses it to push through difficulties in order to achieve his goals. Throughout middle and high school, he developed an interest in the healthcare field. Among his many accomplishments, he is most proud of his work with his local volunteer rescue squad. He joined on his 16th birthday and has logged nearly 500 hours responding to “routine and exceptional” calls.
Hopes & Dreams: In addition to being a life-long volunteer EMT, Carson’s immediate plans call for him to pursue kinesthesiology and pre-physical therapy at the University of Virginia or the University of North Carolina.
Annabel DiCostanzo, Woodbury, CT
Challenges: Annabel is an inspiring 13-year-old who is learning how to navigate the challenges of living with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADHD. At the Easton Country Day School, Annabel is enrolled in the Arrowsmith Program, where she works on cognitive skill development.
Accomplishments: At school she is involved in many extracurricular activities, including team sports, American Sign Language programs, and coaching students on the Adaptive sports team. Known for her enthusiasm and team spirit, this well-rounded teen is also recognized for her empathy toward classmates and in the community.
Hopes & Dreams: As she pursues her ultimate goals, there is no doubt that she will succeed in whatever she chooses to do.
Honorable Mention Winners
Margaret Mateya, Bethel Park, PA
Challenges: As a young child, Margaret was diagnosed with ADHD. She struggled with making friends, doing well in school and playing softball due to her attention deficits.
Accomplishments: Ironically that same distractibility led to her passion for writing. Margaret would daydream about a fictional world where other people were struggling more than she. She started writing her stories down, and seeing her thoughts become something on paper proved transformational. Margaret has already succeeded at her craft. She won the Gold Key Award in the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest for her short story, Convenience Store. In addition, her one-act play Deus Ex Machina was chosen by the Young Playwrights Festival to be performed on stage by professional actors. In addition to being a successful writer, Margaret is the President of the Literary Club, Editor-in-Chief of her school’s literary magazine, and she was inducted into the Quill and Scroll National Honors Society for Journalism. Margaret also acts and was the lead role in her school’s play last fall.
Hopes and Dreams: She wants to be a professional writer and inspire other independent thinkers to become writers.
Zachary Richard, South Windsor, CT
Challenges: As early as preschool, Zachary struggled to recognize the letters of the alphabet and was diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school. Throughout his school career, he persevered at building reading, writing, and spelling strategies.
Accomplishments: His efforts paid off: In high school Zachary has succeeded in college-prep and honors classes with accommodations such as smaller settings and extended time. During the pandemic, he began running as a way to stay focused on his school work. Once his high school reopened, he was a strong enough competitor to make the cross-country team, placing 466 out of 8,360 runners in a big state race. Always a tinkerer with an interest in building, Zachary helped lead his school’s robotics team, and was one of 24 students selected to compete in the 2023 World Final Competition in Texas.
Hopes & Dreams: With plans to study mechanical engineering in college, Zachary hopes to someday be part of a team that will develop technology to help people overcome challenges.
Giovanna Salvaggio, Smithtown, NY
Challenges: Faced with the triple learning challenges of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and ADHD, Giovanna brought to bear the attributes that individuals who succeed with LD often share: hard work, determination, perseverance, and the willingness to “try something new.”
Accomplishments: Giovanna’s “something new” was photography. As a high school junior she enrolled in BOCES Technical School to explore photography. Her passion was ignited; not only did she succeed but she excelled, ultimately joining the Technical Honor Society. She is the recipient of the Long Island Arts Alliance Scholar Artist Award, a prestigious award given to exceptionally accomplished high school seniors in Long Island. Each year only two awards are given in the area of Photography. Receiving this award made Giovanna realize that her hard work was paying off and gave her the confidence to pursue her dreams.
Words of Wisdom: “I am living proof that hard work, determination, and support can help students with learning disabilities and attention issues overcome the obstacles that make it so much harder for us to learn.”
Bailey Schottelkotte, Wyoming, OH
Challenges: Bailey describes her ADHD as an “infuriating feeling…when your brain is locked in a state of mental paralysis, even when deadlines are looming, and the voice in your head is screaming at you to just get it done.” Thanks to a team of medical and educational professionals, an IEP, and an intricate digital planner, Bailey was able to turn her learning difference into an asset rather than a weakness.
Accomplishments: Her grit, perseverance, and drive energized an impressive turnaround, resulting in straight A’s and dual enrollment courses. That freed her to participate in school theater productions, teach herself to play guitar, and establish her high school’s first art club.
Words of Wisdom: Thriving with her newfound perspective, Bailey suggests others with learning differences “accept and understand their brain and figure out what works specifically and uniquely for you!”
Enrique Roveri White, Portland, OR
Challenges: Some might say Rico’s learning differences—ADHD, dyslexia, and a processing disorder—are the least of his challenges. His mother has severe mental illness; he’s spent time in foster care, and his legal guardian, his grandmother, has a disability and cannot work, which at times has meant they lived in her car or a shelter. In the words of his college counselor, Rico “has basically been raising himself for a long time.”
Accomplishments: Despite those overwhelming odds, Rico excels academically and artistically through sheer grit, which in his case is shorthand for determination, self-advocacy, a positive attitude, and creativity. When describing him, his college counselor is effusive, using words such as “remarkable, charismatic, survivor, kind, visionary, amazing, mature, resilient, resourceful, and charming.” His creative strengths include visual arts (digital design and screen printing), language arts (poetry and lyric writing), and music (composition and dance). He is pursuing a passion studying music production outside of school.
Hopes and Dreams: Although Rico faces the challenge of paying for college, he envisions a future filled with “creativity and unique ideas, a place I can thrive.” If the past is prologue, this uniquely gifted teen will find a way to achieve his goals.
Matthew Whitman, Wilton, CT
Challenges: For Matthew the key to living with ADHD and impulsivity is “to go along with my brain instead of fighting it.” Through years of trial and error, he has devised and adopted strategies that now come naturally.
Accomplishments: That approach has empowered Matthew to succeed in school and in life. He maintains a high GPA, takes German Level 4 at the University of Connecticut, and is a member of the German Honor Society. As a dedicated three-season athlete, he participates in soccer, indoor track, and track and field, for which he was captain of the team his junior year. His high school counselor describes Matthew as a compassionate and tenacious individual who follows through on his goals.
Future Plans: This fall he will attend Lafayette College where he will major in mechanical engineering.