Each year Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities honors a group of truly 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
Aja Capel, Urbana, IL
Despite difficulties with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD and CAPD, 14-year-old Aja has excelled in engineering and robotics from an early age. A strong self-advocate and passionate leader, this multi-award winner promotes robotics and STEM pursuits to under-represented groups such as girls and kids of color, founded robotics teams and a Drone Club and was named Chief Curiosity Coordinator by the University of Illinois for creating a STEM pipeline for youth. She is also a 10th grade varsity letter/scholar athlete, and advises young people to “listen to your heart” and to “take your difference and run with it.”
Special Recognition Winner
Josephine Olson, Winnetka, IL
“I don’t know if I would be the same person, or as accomplished if my dyslexia hadn’t forced me to work so hard at everything I do,” says Josephine. Thanks to her determination and unflagging work ethic Josephine has left her mark on her school’s Congressional Debate team, a local disability center where she applies her knowledge of American Sign Language, and as a high achieving independent learner and group leader and problem-solver. A senior at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Josephine is an outstanding rower whose boat came in first among all high schools in the country last year. She looks forward to rowing at Boston University next fall and plans to pursue a law degree, specializing in disability law.
Junior Achievement Award
Jack Quirion, Amston, CT
A freshman at the Rectory School in Pomfret, CT, Jack was nominated by CT State Senator Catherine Osten for his dedication and commitment to learning in the face of his struggle with dyslexia, Over the past 4 years, he’s been an effective advocate, appearing before the state legislature, helping to pass 4 pieces of dyslexia legislation. “By sharing his story,” Senator Osten notes, “he has positively impacted the lives of many young men and women.” He has received awards both from the CT General Assembly for his work, and from the office of Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman.
Honorable Mention Awards
Sarah Benson, Forney, TX
“Dyslexia has taught me how to see the world through a different pair of eyes. I want to help others like me and their loved ones become more educated about dyslexia and…help them succeed to their fullest potential.” Sarah has focused this passion into her Education & Training class, where she works with students with ADHD and dyslexia. She gave a regional school presentation during Dyslexia Awareness Month, and also presented before the Texas Association of School Administrators. She is currently working on a film and presentation for the Forney Independent School District to show “what dyslexia looks like” so that teachers can recognize signs and symptoms early on.
Nick Boyer, Coral Springs, FL
Nick, who has dyslexia and written expression disorder, attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He is captain of three teams, including a culinary team in addition to cross country and track. His long list of academic awards include National AP Scholar; a 3rd-degree black belt in karate, and hundreds of hours of community service. His persistence, hard work, and willingness to put in extra time have led to straight A’s in his most difficult AP classes. Following the Parkland school shooting, he led the memorial run for his coach and mentor who was killed in the attack.
Schuyler Dubitsky, Larchmont, NY
Schuyler’s struggles with ADHD and dyslexia made him feel “light years behind” everyone else, until he spent 4 years in the “incredibly kind and caring environment” of Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, CT. Moving on to a rigorous private school that took a chance in admitting him, his motivation, resilience and intelligence have helped him gain ground each year. Currently a junior, he now earns exceptional grades in honors and AP classes. A talented athlete, he excels in judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu, taking gold medals in regional tournaments. As an activist in his school community, he is helping others who struggled as he once did through a multi-year Moral Leadership Project. He says his learning disabilities “define who I am, giving me a reason to get up each and every morning to prove wrong those who never believed in me, and prove right those who did.”
Danielle Rothchild, Carmel, IN
“My strongest belief is that there is nothing, I mean nothing, that I can’t accomplish,” says Danielle. Diagnosed with a hearing disorder at the age of 10, and later with ADHD, Danielle capitalizes on her strengths as a passionate, creative, and resourceful young person who continually seeks out challenges both in and outside of school. She earns exceptional grades in difficult courses, and is the founder and driving force behind the nonprofit, Danielle Cares for Chairs, dedicated to raising funds to provide wheelchairs to those in need. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, and has been celebrated for her unyielding dedication to making a difference in the lives of others in her community who, like her, experience exceptional challenges and frustration. Says Danielle, “I’ve had a lot of people tell me my dreams were unrealistic, or impossible. It just makes me work harder.”
Sophia Strang, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada
From the age of four, Sophia loved to be on stage. A self-identified type-A personality, she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia in 5th grade and found a school in Vancouver that allowed her to use her strengths to find academic success. When at 12 she first sang in addition to dancing at a school training children to be professionals, her teachers were stunned. She began classical voice training and started winning competitions the following year. Her strength as an auditory learner makes it possible for her to sing in Italian, German, and French despite continuing to find reading in any language challenging. Now 16, she spent last summer training at Tanglewood. “It takes me longer to learn material and memorize music,” Sophia says, “but I never let that stop me from doing what I love and striving for success in every aspect of my life.”
Colin Wexler, Rye, NY
Colin views dyslexia as an advantage because it has fostered his unique problem-solving approaches as well as his determination to succeed. Colin was recognized last year with the prestigious Westchester County Milly Kibrick Youth Service Award for his work at the Bread of Life Food Pantry, where his supervisor notes that his technological innovations “have brought our food pantry into the 21st century” while also developing new avenues of fundraising for the organization. He has received awards for his academic achievements and leadership, in addition to setting up the online business, run initially from his bedroom, that has become a major source of support for the food pantry.