06/05/2014 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reading -- A Matter of Health

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I am interested in illiteracy and learning disabilities, as they have not only touched my life and the lives of those in my family, but also as the founder of Less Cancer, I understand reading to be one of the most important prevention tools. I know firsthand how limiting a lack of literacy can be, affecting one's world from not only living but surviving. If you cannot read directions, it is virtually impossible to have a job or make healthy choices. Reading is not only critical for getting food on the table, but also for understanding what food makes a difference in impacting health. With increases in preventable health issues, we must consider literacy as playing a role. According to a study conducted in April 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the United States cannot read.

Often, lighthouses are symbols of enlightenment and clarity. Lighthouses represent safety; they are firmly anchored on the rocks in rough seas. Anyone who knows the journey of dyslexia knows of the potential for some rough seas, and the lighthouse is a most appropriate symbol used as a beacon of hope by the Landmark School in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts. I believe the staff at Landmark School to be leading experts in educating children with dyslexia, guiding children to address and self-advocate for their learning disability but not be defined by it.

Five years ago, when I learned about the Landmark School, I had little understanding of the ins and outs of dyslexia. Often, those who face dyslexia will hear themselves described as unmotivated, lazy or having a poor attitude ― no surprise when you understand that those new to Landmark as rising high school students may be at the first-to third-grade reading level.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be at the Landmark graduation, an emotional and moving ceremony not only celebrating the accomplishments of its graduates, but also their wide breadth of acceptances to colleges and universities across the country. These were kids who, just four years ago, essentially could not read and had little or no tools for unlocking codes for learning.

Robb Genetelli, Dean of Students, spoke at the senior dinner before graduation, recalling a Muhammad Ali quote:

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. 

Robb expanded on that, reminding students that collectively, they had learned to read, write, memorize lines, sheet music and dance routines and work together on the playing field despite others telling them they couldn't.

So what makes Landmark work? 

Joe Rose, Director of the Prep Program, says "Landmark works first and foremost because of community. Close-knit and devoted to our mission and to each other, everyone shares a passion and dedication that is the foundation of everything we do."

Scott Jamieson, Assistant Dean of Students at Landmark High School, says, "Our activities complement the academic program by providing a relaxed, safe environment for students to discover a hidden talent or master a developing one." 

The Friday and Saturday prior to the graduation, I heard students described as beloved by classmates, heard them speak eloquently and learned that this year, several had been advocates who had spoken at schools and universities, including Harvard. 

I am in awe of the Landmark transformation. The graduation ceremony seemed to exemplify the school's ability to tap into students' gifts. I felt as if I was in the presence of pioneers -- amazing, smart, enterprising young people carving out a new frontier for themselves. These Landmark graduates were accepted into several universities and colleges across the country. It was easy to get caught up in the graduation moment; the love, excitement; the out-loud cheering of families, friends and neighbors who knew these young graduates' early challenges.

For parents who may be overwhelmed by thinking about the next steps for their child who may have a tough time navigating rough seas at school, there are experts out there -- there are those lighthouses. While the Landmark School is not available for everyone, it provides the knowledge and hope that there are strategies available by those in need of a different approach to learning. I am hopeful we can mainstream more of these strategies for a more literate America.