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Peterborough/Jaffrey

Learning with dyslexia: The gift of difference

Steve Walker: New England Wood Pellet owner talks about the challenges  he’s faced growing up and how he found success as an entrepreneur

  • Steve Walker of Peterborough, CEO of New England Wood Pellet, discusses a recent award he received from Windy Row Learning Center in Peterborough.<br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Steve Walker of Peterborough, CEO of New England Wood Pellet, discusses a recent award he received from Windy Row Learning Center in Peterborough.<br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

When Steve Walker was diagnosed with dyslexia in the third grade, he didn’t understand how it made him learn differently than his classmates. Walker recalled last week how his childhood friends whizzed through academic tests, while he grew frustrated and discouraged, despite how hard he tried.

The teachers and adults in Walker’s life referred to his dyslexia as a disability and treated it as such, he said in an interview at his Peterborough home. While dyslexia is a disability according to the law, Walker said he prefers to think of it as a series of weaknesses and strengths that are specific to the individual.

“It’s the way your mind works,” Walker said. “You’re not missing something, you’re just learning differently.”

The degree of difference can vary from person to person, he said. While some people with dyslexia find reading to be an insurmountable challenge, for others the path to success is less of a hurdle.

But the educational system in America doesn’t cater enough to people with differences, Walker said, adding that instead it continues to operate as if everyone learns in the exact same way and has identical needs. More individualized education is something that Walker said he’s advocating for today, so that children with dyslexia are encouraged to realize their optimum potential and to think outside the box.

“Name one other thing in this country that we all do the same,” he said. “Jeans aren’t one size fits all and education shouldn’t be either.”

For more than two decades, Walker has served as the chief executive officer of New England Wood Pellet , which since the mid-1990s has had a research and development facility in Jaffrey. But Walker’s path to success as an entrepreneur didn’t come easy, he said. Instead, it took realizing that his dyslexia was a blessing in disguise.

“I looked at my dyslexia in school as strictly a negative, with no positives. But the fact is there are positives, and its pretty easy to make that argument,” he said. “In school, they teach you that failure is bad, when in reality it really isn’t, as long as it’s managed and you learn from it.”

A few years ago, Walker said he was contacted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation — established in the mid-1960s in Kansas City, Mo. — to participate in a study that examined the correlation between dyslexia and entrepreneurship. Walker, who started New England Wood Pellet in Acton, Mass., in 1992, said participating in the study was an eye-opening experience. The study found that more than one-third of entrepreneurs in the U.S. have dyslexia. Approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population is dyslexic.

After the conclusion of the study, Walker said he realized that his greatest talents were a direct result of his dyslexia and how it allows him to see the world. Walker said his ability to look at information holistically and not in tiny snippets, as well as his ability to delegate tasks to his employees based on their strengths are assets that have aided him in his professional life.

“The study connected all the dots. This thing that was so bad in school was actually a gift,” he said.

Now, Walker seeks to inspire both children and adults with dyslexia throughout the U.S. to go after their dreams and not be afraid to make mistakes along the way. “When I talk to kids and their parents my message is you are going to have to work harder to learn to read, but more importantly realize what you are good at and follow it,” he said.

Earlier this month, Windy Row Learning Center in Peterborough honored Walker for his support of the nonprofit organization’s programs and for being an advocate for people with dyslexia. The plaque Walker received reads: “Windy Row Learning Center honors Steve Walker for generously sharing his own story and giving children the gift of reading.”

Established in 2003, Windy Row is the only one-on-one tutoring program in the Monadnock region for children with dyslexia and dyscalculia, the math equivalent of dyslexia. Windy Row’s supplemental education services are available to students in kindergarten through 10th grade throughout the Monadnock region.

Walker said Windy Row is a gem in the Monadnock region and has seen great success with its students through its use of visual, auditory and kinesthetic, or tactile, techniques taken from the internationally renowned multisensory Orton-Gillingham method. The method was developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Dr. Samuel T. Orton and educator Anna Gillingham.

“The people running it are incredibly dedicated,” Walker said of Windy Row. “Out of the very many organizations I’ve seen, it is possibly the most efficient and effective organization around.”

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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