Belafonte shares her struggles with dyslexia

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Gina Belafonte, right, sings some of Beethoven's fifth symphony on Wednesday at the request of Stan Leonard, left, with Terri Edwards, center, during a fundraiser for The Reading Center at the International Event Center in Rochester.

Wednesday evening's inclement weather did not deter the nearly 400 people who came to hear Gina Belafonte, actress, producer, and youngest daughter of Harry Belafonte, speak of her experience with dyslexia.

Belafonte was diagnosed with dyslexia in the fifth grade but not shown methods to overcome her learning disability. She said she didn't like reading in school, and her grades reflected this. She posed the question, "If I had the methods, who knows what I would have become?"

Cindy Russell, executive director of The Reading Center, which sponsored the event at the International Event Center, noted that dyslexia is "extremely underdiagnosed and undertreated."

Researchers have known what to do for dyslexia for 80 years, she said, and The Reading Center has been tutoring children and adults for 63 years.

"We need to embrace the science of reading. It's up to all of us to give children this hope for their future," Russell said.


But many children struggle needlessly.

"As undiagnosed as dyslexia is for the general population, it is even more so among students of color," she said. "It's a complex situation, but those with undiagnosed dyslexia most often suffer the negative outcomes, including dropping out of school, facing unemployment, even being incarcerated."

In fact, 70 percent of those in jail have reading levels below the fourth grade, Russell said. "This is sad, angering and unnecessary," she said.

The audience was filled with families, teachers, Reading Center tutors and alumni of the program. Lisa Stelzner was tutored at The Reading Center after being diagnosed in the first grade. She said she "hated school — there were lots of hard times."

She was thankful for her parents, who got help for her at the center. She also noted one of the lasting effects of dealing with the challenges dyslexia brings is that she now, as an adult, never gives up. "We have to be cheerleaders for these kids," she added.

In her closing comments, Belafonte urged people to be "advocates for those who are voiceless — for those who do not know where to get help. Get into your schools and get involved," she said.

"Find out what is being done to detect learning disabilities. Testing for dyslexia should be mandatory in all schools. Early testing helps ensure that our young people have an equal playing field early on."

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