In a time when tablets and televisions have replaced books in many homes, a young boy’s call for help in learning to read has had a life-changing effect on Tracey Ely and Hap, her husband, a University of South Carolina biology professor.
In the spring of 1998, the Elys were experiencing a good life. “I sat in my living room overlooking the lake in our Columbia gated community enjoying the serene beauty of the home that Hap and I had built four years earlier,” Tracey says.
Despite feeling well settled in their lives, the Elys individually felt a nudge to sell their home and move to Eau Claire to tutor children from that neighborhood. So, Tracey and Hap literally moved out of their comfort zone and into a small home in an older, diverse Eau Claire neighborhood. With a degree in elementary education from Jackson College of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, Tracey began volunteering as a tutor and reader in the area’s public schools. “I was shocked by the number of children who begged me to help them with their reading.”
After moving to Eau Claire and becoming involved in tutoring, Tracey and Hap soon met a boy who desperately needed help. At that time, he was a failing fourth grader, and no one really knew why he acted out in school and got suspended so often. Many thought “Tony” a gifted athlete who simply wasn’t applying himself.
“I did some research and learned he was probably dyslexic,” says Tracey, “so I pulled him aside one day and said quietly, ‘Tony, I know you can’t read, but if you let me, I will help you.’ Tears began to roll down his cheeks. After I received training in the Wilson Reading System to learn how to teach dyslexic students, he became my first student.”
Slowly and patiently they worked together until he began to gain confidence. He received extra help and eventually caught up to graduate on time with his class. “He told us when he came to visit this past year that even though college is very difficult for him,” Tracey says, “he without question has to finish. ‘I am your showcase,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to do this!’”
Understanding and helping dyslexic learners became Tracey’s joyous and fruitful journey. The current Dyslexia Resource Center started in the couple’s home nearly 20 years ago as “Tutor Eau Claire” to provide support for struggling students from low-income families. Wanting to offer the tutoring services free of charge, they wrote grants — and still do — and appealed to people for donations.
Eventually, the couple established a business model, mission, and website and recruited more tutors. It became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with Hap serving as the board of directors chairman of the what two years ago officially became the Dyslexia Resource Center.
The process of building the center into what it is today required patience. Tracey first learned about the Rolling Readers literacy program and became a tutor trainer. She and Hap recruited volunteers by putting up posters at USC and other area colleges. “We found volunteers — dozens of them! We set up a tutorial at the middle school. We opened a homework center, we ran summer enrichment programs, and we wrote grants to fund our projects,” she says. “Four years later I received a scholarship to study the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching and learned powerful strategies for helping dyslexic students. The OG training has been a very good investment. OG tutors are more deeply trained so they can be diagnostic and prescriptive, with deep knowledge and teaching resources to guide their students to reading mastery.”
Seeing struggling readers make sense of print and then go on to follow their dreams requires hard work, but it is beyond worth it. “I have seen God open many doors to help people in our struggling community, where the high school drop-out rate is 51.9 percent, and where 25 percent of rising ninth graders read at least two levels below grade level,” Tracey says.
A major component to the success of the center is a parent volunteer. “Michelle Keiffer approached me and said, ‘Tracey, let me help you.’ She volunteered for a whole year before we could secure funds to hire her. With her business background and organizational skills, Michelle took the center to a new level. As word of our effective intervention approach spread, our need for more funding for staffing has become obvious. We have invested in providing structured literacy (a.k.a. Orton-Gillingham) training and narrowed our focus to our current mission — raising awareness of dyslexia, providing affordable direct services, and training teachers.”
Ten years ago, the center moved its office to Eau Claire Presbyterian Church, where the generous congregation has allowed it the use of the church education building as an outreach to the Eau Claire community. Tutors have use of a fellowship hall, kitchen, and five classrooms.
While five years ago the Dyslexia Resource Center needed to charge for its services, it uses a sliding fee scale to make them affordable for most families. To continue to make the center obtainable for many, Tracey says the organization relies on such supporters as Sisters of Charity Foundation for student scholarships and St. Martin’s in the Fields Episcopal Church for student scholarships, teacher training scholarships, and equipment. Plus, she says that the center would not exist without its tutors. “We couldn’t do it without them!”
Although Tracey is planning to step down in the near future and hand the reins to a new executive director in order to tutor again, she experienced during her tenure tremendous rewards, such as establishing the RISE volunteer program for low-income K-1 students; witnessing students complete three levels of OG tutoring; seeing public schools request professional development about dyslexia and structured literacy; and realizing annually successful training of 20 new structured literacy interventionists.
But the main benefit is knowing a child’s confidence has been established or restored. “And that confidence is based on solid foundational reading skills that can support them in school and in life,” says Tracey.
When Angel Bruno’s military family of seven was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, she was not sure where she was going to obtain help for four of her five children who struggle with dyslexia. In every new locale, she had sought assistance for her children and had paid thousands before learning about the Dyslexia Resource Center.
“The fact that they have a sliding scale is unheard of,” says Angel. “And they have tutors who are highly trained and genuinely care. In having to move again from this area, what stresses me most is moving away from the center. Organizations like this just don’t exist.”
Angel noticed improvements in her children’s reading and writing abilities in one year of attending the center. “Plus, there’s just a comfort level,” she says. “They have wonderfully improved by leaps and bounds because of the tutors at the center.”
Angel says that she also appreciated Tracey, whom she dubs a sounding board. Although Angel has received some OG training so she can assist her children at home, she is not certified. “So Tracey just helped me a lot with sound advice and suggestions.”
The Brunos were stationed in Hawaii this past summer, but Angel says that what her children learned in Columbia at the center will forever aid their learning. “Columbia has a major gift here, and I don’t think many people realize it. The center really has to be making a difference in the community and for the state.”
Tony, the young man who at 11 became Tracey’s first dyslexic student, graduated from Newberry College and is now pursuing a master’s degree in medical management. Tracey says she will always be very proud to have had a small role in his life. “I am so thankful that I have seen him overcome reading failure to follow his dreams. As long as God gives me breath and strength, I will continue to volunteer my time to help other struggling readers and to advocate for teacher training that can effectively help them.”