ALLOUEZ — A diagnosis in third grade was the catalyst for Caragan Olles to improve what has been called the “black hole” of awareness for dyslexia in Wisconsin. She is now receiving national recognition for her work.
Olles, co-founder and president of Bright Young Dyslexics (BYD), received a bronze medallion on May 24 after being selected as a Distinguished Finalist for Wisconsin in the 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, by Prudential Financial and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, recognizes youth who have volunteered in their community. Each year, one middle and one high school student from each state is awarded and a handful of distinguished finalists are selected, according to a press release from Prudential Financial.
Olles, a 16-year-old student at Notre Dame Academy from De Pere, began BYD with her brother, Carter, in March 2013 to help all persons with dyslexia, grades K-12, in Wisconsin.
Since its beginning, BYD has raised over $80,000 to provide tutoring and assistive technology, such as iPads and pens that read highlighted words aloud, to students with dyslexia and their families. The organization also aims at spreading awareness.
“We don’t have the resources,” she said about dyslexia in the state. “We don’t have the dyslexia tutors in the school systems. So that creates this lack of knowledge, lack of understanding.”
“Being diagnosed kind of opened me and my family’s eyes to this world of struggle with not just myself, but with dyslexia and getting the right help from schools and getting schools to understand what dyslexia is,” said Olles. “We thought ‘How can we do something about this?’”
Olles started to receive tutoring in kindergarten after her preschool teacher suspected she had dyslexia. She said that she was fortunate to receive tutoring at a young age because other families are not so lucky.
“We wanted to do something for those who couldn’t afford dyslexia tutoring and for those families whose schools are telling them, ‘We don’t believe in dyslexia,’” she said.
A single tutoring session can cost between $60 and $80. Students receive tutoring throughout the year, not just while school is in session.
“That’s not just once a month,” she said, “that’s three times a week for at least three years or so.”
Olles said that BYD has had many families come to the organization after requests for help were denied by school officials. In some cases, students and their families do not receive help from school because staff and faculty do not believe in the existence of dyslexia.
“You can see dyslexia on an MRI or a CAT scan,” she said, “so to say it’s not real is like saying, ‘This table’s not real,’ or ‘This chair’s not here.’”
BYD has provided libraries, such as the Brown County and Appleton library systems, with books and resources for children and adults. These collections contain books written by people with dyslexia and books about dyslexia. BYD also has a Youth Advisory Board made up of 20 students. The board is open to any seventh grade through 12th grade student, with or without dyslexia.
“They are our source of brainstorming,” she said. “They help us brainstorm for fundraisers and different events that we can do to spread awareness and raise money.”
BYD began with small fundraisers and progressed to larger fundraisers over the years. The annual dinner auction, which began three years ago, is the organization’s largest event. The next dinner auction will take place February 2019.
The advisory board also helps provide volunteers and bring people to events, such as dyslexia simulations.
Dyslexia simulations show participants how dyslexia feels in a classroom setting, said Olles. Teachers and parents may apply additional stresses to students with dyslexia without knowing it.
“Dyslexics are often labeled the lazy kids or the dumb kids because maybe they ask to go to the bathroom more often because they don’t want to read aloud in class,” she said. She wants to ensure that students do not believe these labels. Simulations help adults in the student’s life understand frustrations that come with dyslexia.
Each simulation is set up in six stations. At one station there is a sheet of paper with two paragraphs. Participants read it backwards and the letters change in fonts and direction.
“Dyslexics do not see differently than anyone else,” she said. “They don’t read backwards. They don’t see things backwards. It’s just to simulate not having the ability to decode a word just by seeing it.”
Olles said simulations are her favorite event because she can see its impact on participants. Parents and teachers say that they had no idea this is what dyslexia felt like.
In the future, Olles hopes that BYD will branch out into other states by providing dyslexia centers that hold dyslexia simulations, spreading awareness, and giving money to those who need resources. She hopes the selection as a distinguished finalist for the 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards will help BYD achieve these goals.
“It will spread the word about Bright Young Dyslexics and about what we are doing to help our community,” she said, “and for dyslexics to see, too, ‘I’m not dumb. I’m not stupid. I’m not falling behind. I can do extraordinary things.’”