/ SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //
David Flink is co-founder and “Chief Empowerment Officer” of a national learning rights movement to change thinking about learning disabilities (LD), ADHD, and dyslexiDF:
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The former Atlanta native sat down to talk about the organization’s growth and goals, moving forward beyond the celebration of its 15th anniversary.
Flink leads the Eye to Eye nonprofit with its keystone mentoring program, with chapters across the U.S. including in Atlanta at Georgia Tech.
A book in the form of an inspirational parents’ guide he has authored, “Thinking Differently,” is scheduled for release by Harper Collins in 2014.
Atlanta Jewish Times: Why did you start Eye to Eye?
David Flink: Everything started with a community service project at Brown University that brought me together with a group of fellow college students with labels — learning disabled, ADHD, and dyslexic.
Our work brought us face to face — or, as was ultimately the case, Eye to Eye, with similarly labeled younger students.
It was really after college when our involvement with that group of students was finished that I began to see an even bigger future, building on what we had started — our organization now reaches across the country, from coast to coast. Our volunteers this year alone have donated over 60,000 hours of service.
AJT: How did you start Eye to Eye?
DF: Following this project, I found people were touched in a very personal way and felt comfortable – many for the first time – talking about their struggles in learning.
Each of us had met educators and adults sensitive to our unique abilities, and others who weren’t. I realized that through Eye to Eye we had a distinct opportunity — a responsibility — to show others what we had achieved despite the struggles and help others build the skills they need to become effective advocates for their way of learning to achieve academic success.
I initially tapped the skills of friends and others to formalize the program, and further developed relationships with donors, administrators, and influencers to found over 56 Eye to Eye chapters in 20 states and growing.
AJT: What kind of support does Eye to Eye provide?
DF: Over 15 years, we have opened doors to the welcoming spaces Eye to Eye creates for thousands of kids.
Through art-related activities and without the pressure of academics, youth labeled as “at-risk” are able to speak freely about their struggles and gain strength from seeing others who have walked in their shoes, who have succeeded.
We foster self-awareness and build self-esteem. Mentees will know how they learn and how to get the support they need to speak out. We help people to be heard.
AJT: What does it mean to be leading a “learning rights movement”?
DF: I am considered by some as “Eye to Eye Mentor 1,” our lead storyteller. From an early age, I was exposed to my grandfather’s masterful use of interpersonal skills in his historic local Atlanta barber shop.
A Greek immigrant and Holocaust survivor, Eli Sotto formed lifelong relationships with his patrons, including city mayors. That proved to be a powerful influence in solidifying his presence in the community.
I learned about the strength in social-emotional connections. The lesson I learned from an earlier generation is part of who I am. This legacy — how to share a story, how to share my LD story — is the lesson I’m sharing forward to benefit future generations of people.
AJT: When did you know what you were doing was important?
DF: I knew from day one, but it took time to figure out my part as a messenger; the role was a natural evolution.
For some, like my grandfather, this is a difficult concept to connect to. As all doting grandparents do, my grandfather has told me he is proud of me, even if he doesn’t know what I do.
As a relative put it, I do what my grandfather does — I tell stories for a living. I am teaching others as I learned, to use my strengths and mitigate my weaknesses. My grandfather’s education was cut short, when he was taken to a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
After eventually making his way to the United States, he overcame issues such as a language barrier to found and grow a vibrant, successful business. He succeeded without knowing the language and with little formal schooling; what mattered was what he could do. He always stressed the importance of education to me, inspiring me to reach beyond my learning challenges and develop my skills.
Every fifth person has a learning difference, what is generally termed a disability, and few of this group graduate high school, while just 1.8 percent graduate from a four-year college. Eye to Eye is working to change that and provide more opportunities for success.
AJT: Where do you see the biggest opportunities in the learning rights movement?
DF: Building support systems in the community and with others. While we might like them to, our art projects and the spirit of acceptance that students labeled with the LD / ADHD experience in our art rooms don’t last forever. We aim to move the conversation into society at large so that having LD / ADHD is just another aspect of our individuality.
AJT: What is the primary message you want to send?
DF: A significant effort was put into developing our vision statement. We wanted to appropriately capture the essence of what we’re doing.
To best summarize the vision for the learning rights movement, all of us involved with Eye to Eye are driven to create a world in which one day all learners will be recognized and youth who learn differently will realize their potential to succeed in school and life.
Eye to Eye asks people to adopt a different view of what it takes to be a different learner, to be forgiving of kids and not to fault anyone for these challenges. Find a way to help them learn.
AJT: What else would you like people to know?
DF: In reality, this is a story about learning and disability in learning. No person should ever be a “disabled learner.”
There are so many routes available to become involved or support our efforts, from bringing our Think Different Diplomats to deliver a presentation to a school or a particular community, to following our activity on Facebook.
I am honored to have been part of this amazing journey. I am humbled by the relationships that have been forged and how far we have come as an organization, and to see the progress we have made in raising awareness and attracting support.
Editor’s note: To learn more about the work and activities of Eye to Eye, and to sign up for their mailing list, visit eyetoeyenational.org. You can also text the phrase “learnon” to 22828 to be prompted to join the Eye to Eye mailing list.