Editor’s note: Like a seed that needs time and nurturing to germinate and mature, so is the child. Following is the story of parents who stood behind their son Sam, who had learning difficulties through most of his school career. Today, Sam is a college graduate who was offered a job that will allow him to “give back” to many who face the same challenges he has faced.
Says his mother Bella, “You have to go around the challenge or bring change in order for the child to succeed.”
Below, they share their story to encourage other families. As this praying mother reflects, “God connects the dots.”
(Names in this article have been changed to honor the family’s privacy.)
Difficult School Years
Sam struggled in school. He couldn’t seem to copy items from the board. Organization suffered, and homework didn’t get done. Teachers were concerned that Sam was lazy.
Reading was a big challenge. His eyes labored to focus and lost their place on the page. Sam, who is now 24, remembers: “Subconsciously I avoided reading and never recognized why.”
“As a parent, I was helping him through,” explains Bella, his mother. She and her husband Andrew retaught academic concepts and assisted with homework so that Sam could learn.
Bella, a childcare worker and teacher aide for more than 20 years, suspected something else was wrong. She and her husband advocated for reading support and other accommodations for Sam through his elementary school.
However, with supports removed a few years later and academic demands growing, middle school got worse for Sam. While his older brother earned A’s with ease, Sam devoted long hours to earn lower (and sometimes failing) grades. He withdrew into his bedroom.
“I used to yell at him,” Andrew says regretfully. “I didn’t know that he was working.”
Finding Some Answers
Something had to change. Sam recalls investing considerable time and effort into schoolwork, getting less-than-desired results, and feeling pressure to do better.
Andrew remembers when a frustrated Sam approached his parents, asking for psychological testing to better understand how he learned. It was early in high school.
Around that time, another clue came—in the form of a conversation Bella had with a teaching colleague. After Bella explained her son’s struggles, the colleague mentioned that her own daughter had dealt with a color-vision issue that impeded her learning.
Bella contacted an ophthalmologist, and testing began. Sam remembers sitting in the dark, wearing diagnostic glasses and reading glowing text for the eye doctor. His eyes wandered around the text rather than following line by line.
“It showed how difficult reading was,” Sam says, “and that this isn’t entirely my fault.”
The doctor reported that Sam’s eyes didn’t converge properly. “It wasn’t his brain,” Bella explains. “It was his eyes.”
“My eyes tend to struggle to focus appropriately which is due to how they converge. As a result of that I may have to read sentences repeatedly,” Sam explains.
Armed with this knowledge, Sam could move forward. His high school wrote a learning plan to support his slower-than-average processing, which the family now knew resulted from a visual disability. Sam began vision therapy twice a week. As well, a local advocacy organization provided support to Sam. Its charge was to support him through high school and on to college and/or a career.
Importantly, Sam began to speak up for his own needs. Bella recalls how Sam’s initial shyness to ask for help gave way to confidence—and his grades began to improve. (To read more about Sam’s journey in self-advocacy, see related article, “Self-Advocacy Gets Results,” below.)
Off to College
High school graduation behind him, Sam went on to a respected state college a few hours from home. He took with him his individualized learning plan and growing self-advocacy skills.
Bella notes happily, “There were plenty of accommodations in college.” Still, Sam experienced setbacks and successes alike as he navigated college. The family admits it was a learning process for all involved.
Computer science was Sam’s intended major—until he had an epiphany at the end of sophomore year. “I was presented with a beautiful opportunity of working within the field of social work one summer. It was because of my disability,” Sam says. He enjoyed the job, which was funded by the advocacy organization, assisting individuals with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities.
That fall, Sam changed his major to social work, with a minor in computer science.
“I had completely discovered my passion!” Sam says. “I noticed an increase in my performance because of recognition of my direction and confidence in what I wanted to do.”
His father affirms this choice. “(Sam is) a very compassionate, very caring—unbelievably so—person. I think that’s a very good field for him. That’s where he should be,” Andrew asserts.
Knowing his purpose, Sam gathered courage to start conversations with professors, request help, and attend office hours. He says he felt more “in tune” and “excited to be taught,” even enjoying the content more. He began to write papers that were far from generic, but expressed his unique perspective. As a result, his grades improved.
Facing Challenges Head-On
Sam worked for six years to earn his college degree—a fact that he sometimes pondered with his father. In response, Andrew asked his son to consider why highways have more than one lane.
“People travel at different rates of speed. Some cars go faster, some go slower,” Andrew says. “Education is the same thing. The point is that you make it to the exit.”
Sam’s parents celebrate his academic accomplishments. More so, they are proud of their son’s character development.
Says Andrew: “He’s become more outgoing, more self-confident, and he’s able to formulate ideas and opinions and be more aggressive in supporting them.”
Bella adds, “I think he’s got a lot of empathy for people. I think he is a very mature young man, and it’s made him a very strong individual with a lot of opinions. He definitely has come to his own.”
Pay it Forward
The family offers insight and encouragement for other families whose children have difficulty learning.
Andrew notes, “The biggest advice I would give is to listen to your kids, to observe, and to have a lot of patience.” He adds that a willingness to assist your children, to the point of their self-sufficiency, is needed.
Bella values persistence, saying, “College for (Sam) was a really good, good thing. Was it easy? No. If all things were easy, you wouldn’t get stronger.”
She has praised God throughout the journey. Bella says her favorite scripture comes from Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-47—“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
She encourages other parents to pray and hope in the face of academic challenges. Says Bella, “God is going to put the pieces together so (despite) the challenges you have, a fruit will come out of it. There will be a silver lining.”
Sam’s Story: Self-Advocacy Gets Results
One man’s struggles can become another man’s stepping stone.
That is Sam’s hope, after facing life-long educational challenges that taught him persistence, communication, and self-advocacy. Now a 24-year-old college graduate, Sam is excited to pass those skills on to others.
It didn’t start that way for Sam.
During his initial years in college, Sam was fearful to self-advocate. “I always thought I would just have to try harder,” he recalls. “I never really liked asking questions in the middle of class.”
In time, he saw the value of requesting help. Sam explains: “I began to recognize in my college career how important it was to seek assistance from professors, speak out, make yourself known, and ultimately have a prominent presence. Make it known that you are actively trying and seek interest in your course and your academics.”
The opportunity to share this revelation with others started midway through college, when Sam took on his first social work job for a local advocacy organization. His task: Assisting high school students as they tackled courses at a local university in the face of various disabilities.
Due to his own struggles, Sam was equipped. He could reach into his toolkit to teach others to speak up for their needs. “It was cool being able to sit in that classroom and encourage students to seek assistance from professors,” recalls Sam.
He recalls coaching one young man who (like Sam’s younger self) felt insecure speaking out in class. Sam coached him to save his questions and ask the instructor later.
“It was cool to see him actually wait until after the lecture ended and go up to the professor and ask a wide array of questions and later in the program, send emails with direct questions,” Sam recalls.
Sam admits that his own academic struggles were painful and sometimes isolating. Yet he is confident about his future in social work.
Sam notes, “I can take a weakness of mine and be able to flip it into a strength for other students. I can vicariously experience that sense of growth too and get excited to see other people succeed.”
He has already witnessed students transform from reluctant to eager learners, who are now joyful about school.
Sam recently received an offer to continue working for that local advocacy organization—this time as a program director. Sam hopes his message of perseverance, communication, and self-advocacy will strengthen others.
“I want to be assisting people with disabilities, if I can, within an academic setting,” Sam says. “I want to help people and make a positive difference.”
Photos, in order, courtesy of Vasily Koloda (Unsplash), Moritz320 (Unsplash), Laura Kapfer (Unsplash), Wokandapix (Pixabay), Xiaolong Wong (Unsplash), Bantersnaps (Unsplash), and Ian Stauffer (Unsplash).