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Committing to Change

Special Needs Stories - Special Education StoriesI was an outsider until the summer of 2001. I had been diagnosed with a learning disability. I was a nearly friendless boy with no clear direction, passion, or goal. That’s when the summers with Daily Graces came into my life. I was born with several neurological issues. I have prosopagnosia, or “face-blindness,” the inability to recognize faces. When I was young, I would go up to people on the street who wore the same red jacket as my father only to have them tell me, “I’m not your Daddy, kid.” My embarrassed mother would apologize, take my hand, and we’d move on. Academically, I was diagnosed with visual processing and sequencing disorders. Initial school testing in 1998 showed scores from the first to ninety-ninth percentiles.

Our 2009 Anne Ford & Allegra Ford Scholar Zeke Nierenberg turned his experiences with learning disabilities and other neurological issues into a commitment to change the world. His story shows his transformation from a loner to an active community member.
That’s not all. In kindergarten, when other boys were learning to catch a ball, I couldn’t. I just didn’t have enough coordination between my visual and motor skills. I didn’t have the balance to stand on one leg for more than a second. In first grade, I had so much difficulty telling letters apart that I was held back. Thankfully, with the help of countless specialists and hours of my loving parents’ time, I learned to recognize people as well as to read, albeit slower than most people.

By the end of my third grade, I had yet to recover from the psychological damage of these disabilities. So many kids had made fun of me for so long that all my hobbies and activities were solitary. It hurt less that way.

Then I found Camp Winnarainbow, a place where outsiders can come in.

And then Wavy Gravy said grace:
"We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories, who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
who never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and
whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being…"

— from Ina J. Hughs’ poem, "We Pray for Children"
“Before you eat this meal, think of all the energy that it took to make. Think of all the energy it will bring you throughout your day. Think of how blessed you are to have it. Please send some energy to those who don’t.”
Everyone shouts “Ahoh,” or “Amen,” or simply nods in acknowledgement.
Winnarainbow is a circus and performing arts camp in Northern California. It was founded by hippy/clown icon, Wavy Gravy. Although the circus aspect of the camp is important and taken seriously, it is not the camp’s primary function. Camp Winnarainbow strives to create a “living environment of love, safety, and harmony.” It admits kids from many different backgrounds. Some come from foster homes, some come from homeless shelters, and some come from mansions. Once there, the barriers of society are thrown down.

Now, each summer, I work at Camp Winnarainbow to give others the same experience I had. Last summer, I was the coordinator of teen staff. I made sure that 27 staffers were all doing their jobs effectively, and that we were doing everything we could to ensure the campers were having the best experience of their lives.

We make more change in a day at camp than we do in months living in the “real world.” In two weeks, we change the lives of campers; to some, we give hope, to others, just fun.

This was the first place where I was truly accepted. It’s the place that let me accept myself, too, the place that taught me to over-learn as a strategy. Camp took me from a boy who couldn’t catch to a man who can juggle, from a boy who was afraid to ride a bike to a man known for unicycling, from a boy with no direction to a man with a mission: to change this world.
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