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Inspiring Conversations with Sarah Bartley and Mary Kaeser-Miller

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sarah Bartley and Mary Kaeser-Miller. Them and their team share their story with us below:

Mary and Sarah are two moms who met in a Facebook support group that Mary created after her child was identified with dyslexia. She became increasingly frustrated with the lack of knowledge surrounding dyslexia and how her school district should be helping. She created Dyslexia St. Louis Parent and Professional Support to provide support for parents, knowledge about dyslexia for parents and educators, and to bring people to action to help all kids learn to read. Finding comfort with other parents with children who have dyslexia, Mary realized that there were many parents who needed help and support.

I joined the group about a year after it began when I was struggling to find help for my own child with dyslexia in the school setting. The frustration and anxiety were paralyzing at times, and I desperately needed to connect with other parents who understood. I connected with Mary and a group of moms quickly and began attending their monthly meetings. It was a relief to find other moms who were experiencing the same struggles and heartache associated with having a child who learns differently.

As we met monthly, the focused began changing from how we support each other to how we can make a difference for all kids in the state of Missouri. During that time, there was a dyslexia screening and training bill making its way through the legislative process and we joined a bigger grassroots effort to ensure legislation passed. Mary and I, along with several others traveled to Jefferson City and gave testimony before an education committee to support the Dyslexia Screening bill. That bill moved forward and was signed into law on June 22, 2016.

To further ignite our passion to advocate for children with dyslexia, Mary and I were board members of the Kansas Missouri Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (KSMO IDA). While serving on KSMO IDA, we helped organize informational conferences, start a teacher and student scholarship, and raise money and establish community relationships through the Dyslexia Dash. The more we worked together the clearer it became that we have complementing strengths and weaknesses. We make a great team.

In 2016 Mary began tutoring my (Sarah’s) child using the Barton Reading and Spelling System, which allowed us to spend more time talking. A topic that came up often was the lack of services available to families in the St. Louis Area. Mary had a dream to own a center where families could go to get help with reading instruction and support with understanding dyslexia and their parental rights in the public school system. One afternoon we met for lunch and I (Sarah) was discussing a job opportunity that was available when Mary said, “Don’t take that job, let’s open a dyslexia center. We can give it six months and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we tried.” In December of 2017, Dyslexia St. Louis LLC was created. Within six weeks, we wrote up an agreement, rented a small office space, and got to work establishing our business. We had zero paying clients, one reading coach, and one educational advocate but we had the determination and drive to succeed to become the go-to place for tutoring, advocacy, and education for dyslexia. Nearly four years later, Dyslexia St. Louis Learning & Advocacy Center serves more than 100 families, has 30 Reading Coaches, and three Educational Advocates.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
When Dyslexia St. Louis Learning and Advocacy Center opened there was no place quite like our center in St. Louis County that offered tutoring and advocacy services under one roof. Here we were two moms and professionals bringing our skills and passion for helping other families together to run a business and build a strong infrastructure for growth. There was not a business model we could follow. So, Mary and I had a bit of a learning curve and we had to become very comfortable with trial and error and looking at everything as a learning experience. We have consistently had to navigate how to manage rapid growth due to rising demand while finding and hiring professionals. In the first two years, we moved our offices four times to allow enough space for Reading Coaches and students. We have had to learn how to balance running a business and learning all the necessary skills and information while also having a job within it and not working to the point of burnout. If Mary and I are not careful and purposeful about taking time off and self-care, we could quickly find ourselves working all the time. Then in March of 2020, COVID-19 threw us the largest learning curve yet. We decided to transition to online tutoring until it was safer to meet in person, which meant quickly training our team of Reading Coaches on how to navigate new platforms for video chatting, online tutoring, and communication. We lost clients at first but quickly recouped and eventually had more students than before.

One of the toughest challenges was maintaining the personal connection between ourselves and our families. Mary and I loved the hum of the center and seeing the growth in reading skills. We were able to be there with our families to celebrate the wins and support them in the challenges. Initially, it was hard and sad to work in the office because it was so quiet, and we felt disconnected. We took advantage of having more time alone to build a new website and focus on how we continue to build and grow our business to eventually reopen to in-person tutoring and continue online services. In terms of advocacy services, our educational advocates had to learn how to use efficiently use video chatting platforms and adjust to the nuances of online meetings while providing support to families who were navigating the special education process, IEP and 504 meetings. These meetings can be emotionally charged and difficult so having an advocate in the same room makes parents feel safe and supported. We had to work differently to make sure that personal connection and lifeline to support continued to work for families while also maintaining collaborative relationships with educators and school districts.

As you know, we’re big fans of Dyslexia St. Louis Learning & Advocacy Center. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
Dyslexia St. Louis Learning & Advocacy Center opened for business in January of 2018 when Mary and I recognized that St. Louis families needed more resources to help their children with dyslexia. We specialize in teaching children how to read, assisting families in navigating and negotiating the IEP or 504 process. We do not require our students to have a diagnosis to access any of our services. Our center uses a structured systematic approach to teaching reading using the Barton Reading and Spelling System along with specific techniques and curriculums to target the most basic reading skills.

Mary and I (Sarah) want you to know that we are professionals but also moms who understand the complexities and struggles involved in having children who learn differently. Our goal is to provide a safe, warm place for students to learn and families to get the support and information they need, and professionals and educators to come for accurate, quality information.

We strive to be known for our professionalism and warmth. Mary and I (Sarah) value relationships and collaboration with families, professionals, and educators. In fact, another arm of Dyslexia St. Louis Learning & Advocacy Center that we did not foresee was professional development training for private and public schools. It is one of those things we said yes to even when it made us a bit uncomfortable. Both of us have walked the path of a parent trying to figure out the best ways to help our children and used our experiences to drive additional training and education to hone our professional skills. It is always an honor to share our knowledge with educators.

Within the last year, we have partnered with an amazing speech and language pathologist who evaluates children and adolescents for dyslexia and language impairments. We have found that a quality evaluation is helpful in helping parents and districts understand the strengths and weaknesses a student has as a learner.

We are proud of the trusting relationships that are built with the families and students we serve, the professionals we employ, and the network of professionals we work alongside. Our center is a place where students and their families develop strong, trusting relationships with their Reading Coaches and even other families. One of our favorite things to observe in our center prior to COVID was the connections that were made among parents in our waiting area. It was amazing to watch all the parents applaud the accomplishments of the students. A parent once told us that she looked forward to tutoring days because the other parents in the waiting area provided support and she felt less alone. Normalizing dyslexia and the experience of having a struggling student was not something we anticipated but has become part of the culture in our center. It is comforting for kids to see that they are not alone in their struggles. Our goal is to become a place that offers families everything they need to help their child(ren) be successful in the classroom and beyond.

In addition, Mary and I (Sarah) are proud that we are lifelong learners who are willing to take some risks if that means helping kids read and feel better about themselves. Dyslexia and reading struggles take a toll on a child’s self-esteem and family dynamics. There is nothing better than the moment a child or parent sees progress or feels some relief from the constant worry that learning differences tend to bring.

So, before we go, how can our readers or others connect or collaborate with you? How can they support you?
People can find information about our business and the services we provide on our website. They can email us through the website or find contact information. In addition, they can find us on Facebook and share our content.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Abby Rose Photograpy LLC

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