By Lisa Goldstein, MD
The Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is delighted to announce that our friend, mentor, devoted volunteer, past PBIDA office administrator, annual conference chair too many times to count, and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Regional Group, Mary Ellen Trent is the 2022 recipient of the Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association’s prestigious Janet L. Hoopes Award.
Since 2010 Mary Ellen has been the Director of Admissions at Delaware Valley Friends School, a school for students in grades 1-12 who learn differently. Head of School Kirk Smothers told PBIDA, “There is no more ardent advocate for students who learn differently than Mary Ellen Trent. She has been a champion and an expert guide. While her commitment to DV Friends is deep and long, her love of and hard work for those who learn differently has reached across the Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, and beyond. I can think of no more deserving recipient of the Janet L. Hoopes Award.”
Mary Ellen’s commitment to improving the lives of individuals with dyslexia began twenty years ago in Pittsburgh, when first her daughter Lisa and then her husband Jeff were diagnosed with dyslexia. Mary Ellen explained, “It’s heartbreaking to see your child not be understood. You just want to do the right thing and be the most helpful.” Since that first diagnosis Mary Ellen has devoted her life’s work to “doing the right thing” for the dyslexia community and PBIDA.
While not the career path she imagined when she graduated from Ohio Wesleyan with a degree in Journalism and Fine Arts, or when working at Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and in human resources, Mary Ellen did what many mothers do – whatever was necessary to help her child. With her daughter on waiting lists for a tutor, and seeing the need in her community, Mary Ellen completed graduate level training and a yearlong practicum with two students and became a certified Orton Gillingham tutor. Her instructor then was Maria Paluselli, who is now the CEO of Provident Charter School, the first school in the Pittsburgh region for children with dyslexia.
Mary Ellen began researching before the days we could search online or find a virtual community. “I love to read, so I just read and went to conferences and networked.” Mary Ellen marveled that experts would share their phone numbers and email addresses with her, and this gave her and so many others hope. These contacts became her own personal rolodex that she would use over the next twenty years to help thousands of others.
Notably, Mary Ellen collaborated with a few local experts, including Maria Paluselli, Pam Swain, Sharon Arfa, and Carol Utay, and committed volunteers. By 2004 she co-founded and was the first Corresponding Secretary of the Pittsburgh Regional Group of PBIDA. Their first conference was attended by 125 people.
When she and her family moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, the local PBIDA office welcomed Mary Ellen. A few hours a week of part-time work led to running the local organization and the conferences. When she took a full-time job at AIM Academy in 2009, she continued to chair the annual conference and joined the Board for two terms.
It can be difficult to catalog all of Mary Ellen’s contributions to PBIDA because she is often our institutional memory and always quick to name all of her heroes and give others credit. While she identifies only the six conferences she chaired at Delaware Valley Friends School, many of us recall that she chaired, co-chaired or had significant responsibility for as many as eleven annual conferences. In her very first year in Philadelphia, she recalls working for PBIDA with conference chairs Marianne Cook and Julia Sadtler, both past presidents of PBIDA, when PBIDA hosted the 2004 IDA National Conference in Philadelphia. Sixteen years later, she recalled proudly that with more than 3000 people in attendance, this still might be their largest conference ever!
A generation of facilitators for the Experience Dyslexia, A Simulation, has been trained by Mary Ellen, but few of us can match her performance, which is likely a remnant from her early life working in retail. To attend a DV Friends School Open House hosted by Mary Ellen, or Dyslexia Simulation with Mary Ellen as a facilitator and her husband Jeff as a speaker, is to experience firsthand how her personal and professional life inspired her dedication.
David Calamaro, Associate Head of School and Academic Dean at DV Friends School, describes her unique qualities: “Mary Ellen is so knowledgeable and an incredible listener… the first one to reflect back to families a deep sense of empathy and understanding….She offers hope of a better educational path, and once a DV family, they remain ‘hers,’ always attending to students’ major life events through graduation and beyond.”
I can still hear her voice at PBIDA Board meetings quietly reminding us that Pennsylvania is bigger than just Philadelphia. It is fitting in 2022, when Christine Seppi is our very first PBIDA President from Pittsburgh, that we are honoring Mary Ellen. It is Mary Ellen Trent’s lived experience and passion on both sides of the state that played a pivotal role in PBIDA becoming a true statewide organization.
The Hoopes Award was established in 2003 to honor Dr. Janet L. Hoopes, the first recipient of the award, a dedicated PBIDA Board Member, Professor Emeritus at Bryn Mawr College, and co-founder of Hill Top Preparatory School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. The Hoopes Award is presented annually at PBIDA’s Annual Fall Conference to an individual or individuals in Pennsylvania or Delaware who have made a significant contribution to the education and lives of those with learning differences.
Mary Ellen Trent embodies the true spirit of the Hoopes Award as she continues Dr. Hoopes’ work. In Mary Ellen’s own words, “It’s a passion, but it is also a privilege to work with my colleagues, the kids, and the parents.”
Dr. Lisa Goldstein is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in suburban Philadelphia. She is a former board member, conference chair, and president of PBIDA.