By Amanda Beeler
March 10, 2023
In October 2022, the PBIDA community welcomed Eye to Eye co-founder and CEO David Flink as a keynote speaker at their fall conference. Flink, who joined the gathering remotely, shared his personal journey navigating school and life with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder and explained how building a community of peers with learning differences in college led him to found Eye to Eye.
Eye to Eye is a unique mentoring organization, designed for young people with learning differences including ADHD, that pairs high school and college students with 5th through 8th graders for an after-school, arts-based mentoring program. The program, which has chapters in schools across the country, provides students with a supportive community of people connected by their learning differences. “If you don’t give kids an identity that’s positive and a community to rely on, they’ll never be able to ask for what they need,” Flink shared during his October presentation.
Eye to Eye at AIM
AIM Academy, in Conshohocken, became Eye to Eye’s first high school chapter in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2016. This school year there are three active Eye to Eye chapters in the state: Delaware Valley Friends School, the Pennsylvania State University, and AIM. These chapters serve an estimated 55 students.
AIM’s chapter began working with students at AMY Northwest Middle School in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood, but since the pandemic has operated an in-house program with AIM middle school students participating as mentees and AIM high school students acting as mentors.
Morgan Silverman ’24 and Maddie White ‘23, this year’s chapter leaders at AIM, are responsible for presenting Eye to Eye’s curriculum each week in the “Art Room” where mentors gather with mentees to participate in guided art projects. Each project is designed to help students build skills and confidence especially related to learning differently.
Knowing that their mentors have similar learning differences helps create an environment where it is safe for younger students to share their feelings, experiences, and struggles while working on projects. “I think often the mentees don’t really think of the projects as sharing their emotions as much as working on a project and being creative,” said White who joined Eye to Eye because she likes working with kids.
The projects often make the high school mentors self-reflective. “Because every activity is targeted for a different theme, some of the ideas are not things I would have thought about as connecting to our LD,” White said. “They make me think more about ways I describe my struggles, which isn’t something that is on my mind every day. It does make me think about things that might have set me back in the past.”
Silverman joined the program her first year at AIM because she wished she had had similar support learning about her dyslexia. “I like being there to show them it is OK to have learning disabilities, to let them know that it’s going to be a struggle, but you’re going to make it. It’s going to be OK,” she said.
Two of White and Silverman’s favorite projects this year included Lily Pads and Self Portraits. In the Lily Pads project, each student created a pad naming something that helped them succeed in life. The pads were then strewn on the ground as mentors and mentees hopped from one pad to another to get across an imaginary river. The Self Portraits project required students to reflect on themselves, their likes and dislikes.
Both White and Silverman also appreciated the group’s opportunity to work together and foster teamwork in the Bridge activity held before Winter Break where students glued together a blue paper river representing negative feelings. They then used a variety of materials to construct a bridge of positive feelings to cross the river. “Working as a team is a good lesson that you can be by yourself, but it is important to work with everyone as well,” White shared. “It was great to see kids interacting with each other and to see the ideas they came up with using popsicle sticks and straws to create beams and a platform.”
Mentoring Supports Students and Leaders Alike
The mentoring component of Eye to Eye isn’t limited to the Art Room. Each week White and Silverman connect with their Eye to Eye Near-Peer Mentoring Program Coordinator Alyssa Tundidor. “We discuss the Art Room and any struggles we have, and she gives us ideas and tips on what can make it better and helps us come up with a game plan if we’re having any problems,” White said.
Tundidor, who was an Eye to Eye mentor during college in Virginia, manages 20 chapters across the East Coast, meeting weekly with chapter leaders. “Whenever chapter leaders have an issue or concerns within the Art Room, it’s really important for me to be able to draw on my experience to provide them guidance,” she said. Her experience working in the Art Room in college is an important part of her ability to support chapter leaders in their roles. Tundidor said she finds that mentors and even the younger mentees in Eye to Eye chapters in schools for students with learning differences are usually already very familiar with the topics and themes in the curriculum including self-regulation, accommodations, agency, values, and mindset.
Susan Carson, AIM’s Eye to Eye faculty mentor, said the program offers students a chance to see an older version of themselves in the mentors and reminds high school mentors how far they’ve come. It also gives them a platform to share what they’ve learned along the way. “I enjoy seeing the mentees ask the mentors good questions about life,” Carson said. “I enjoy seeing the mentors grow in how they respond to questions they never thought of, and their answers are usually very intuitive and helpful to the mentees.”
Molly Cassidy, who graduated from AIM in 2017, was among the first group of AIM’s Eye to Eye mentors. Cassidy, who now holds a master’s degree in communications and business leadership and works as a recruitment coordinator in Philadelphia, recalls that connecting with mentees at AMY Northwest Middle School was just as important as the activity they were working on. “The most important part was being able to help relate to the students and make sure they didn’t feel alone while navigating school,” Cassidy said. “These students were just beginning to understand more about their learning disability, and we were able to help them get over any fears or negative stereotypes that come with a learning disability. I think the students felt comfortable confiding in us since we could relate to a lot of their struggles in school.”
As Flink shared during the PBIDA conference, “We don’t have to make heroic efforts to be a hero. You have to listen to what kids need, ask for help, and be willing to provide it.” Eye to Eye chapters like AIM’s are creating communities where middle school students develop and grow their social and emotional skills and connect with role models who have shared experiences. According to Flink, “The sooner we can help kids frame their neurodiversity as a positive thing, the sooner they can ask for what they need.”
Amanda Beeler is the Chief Communications Officer at AIM.
The Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is pleased to present a forum for information to benefit its constituents. It is IDA’s policy to not recommend or endorse any specific program, product, institution, company, or instructional material, noting that there are a number of such that present the critical components of instruction as defined by IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Any program, product, institution, company, or instructional material carrying the IDA Accredited seal meets the IDA Standards.