The Spelling Dee is for dyslexia

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Susan Smilanic, center, discusses the spelling of a word with Matt Kelly as they serve as a resource in The Liberty School’s Dyslexic Spelling Dee on Wednesday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was a fundraiser for school supplies for a sister school in Darfur, South Sudan.

I learned what a limited view of the world I have while judging The Liberty School’s Spelling Dee on Wednesday. The Dee, instead of Bee, was to honor the fact that people with dyslexia see words through a completely different lens.

My co-judge was Dan Guandolo, whose 13-year-old son Danny is a student at the school and competed in the Dee. Our chief responsibility was to ring a little replica of the Liberty Bell when a contestant spelled a word correctly. Liberty School, Liberty Bell, get it? (I think we were candidates for carpal tunnel syndrome before the evening was over.)

Guandolo told me he wrote the letter “b” down and asked his son what letter it was. “I see four letters,” was the reply. Because Danny sees written words as three-dimensional (or more), whereas I only see it as two, he saw a letter that could be b, d, p or q. No wonder reading and writing are a challenge for dyslexics.

Another lesson learned Wednesday was that people with dyslexia, because of their difficulty seeing distinctions between letters, learn spelling rules instead of memorizing how to spell individual words. I didn’t even know the English language had so many spelling rules, so I learned something about my native language, which is arguably one of the more irregular languages in the world.

The Dee was split into different kinds of spelling, real words spelled using the rules of phonetics; nonsense words spelled using the rules of phonetics; or “red words” that follow no rules – you either know how to spell them or you don’t, which make up about 5 percent of English words.

A group of 10 middle school-aged students bravely took on the challenge in addition to Danny – Dermarr Harlan, Jackson North, Izzy Simpson, Dawson Zick, David McLaughlin, Kristen Goons, Kai Brabeck, Logan Zick, Rainey Scott and Malcolm Kelly.

Classmate Evelyn “Evie” Lewis was the mistress of ceremonies, and Keely Savagemanaged the set up.

Dermarr used an interesting technique for his spelling. He used a Tupperware container filled with sand, “writing” his words in the sand, which, in effect, made them three dimensional and easier to see.

The spellers each had three lifelines inspired by “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The first was “Ask a Dyslexic Parent,” which was my personal favorite.

The three parents who volunteered to sit in the hot seats were Matt Kelly, Susan Smilanic and Jennifer Scott, and they were called on several times, always to great success. I hope the students were inspired by their confidence.

The second was the two-thirds option, which meant the speller only had to get that number of letters right. And, the final lifeline was a pass, which was only called into play a time or two. A student could buy back in if he or she were eliminated, but that never happened.

In some ways that was unfortunate, because the Spelling Dee was a fundraiser for the school’s community service class. They have adopted the Djabal Refugee Camp School in Darfur, which is now part of the world’s newest nation, Southern Sudan. You’d probably have to be living in a cave to be unaware of the genocide that has occurred in that area during the last decade.

As the students pointed out, a whole generation has grown up in the refugee camps without an education, and if they are going to build a stable and prosperous society for the new nation, education needs to be a priority.

The school adopted the Djabal school through NBA Atlanta Hawks player Tracy McGrady’s Darfur Dream Team project. The money they send is used for school supplies, books, teacher training and materials for facilities.

About 45 people cheered for the contestants, and everyone finished as a winner.

The school has another community service project today, but this one’s a little more local. They are collecting food and donations for the canine crew at Annie’s Orphans. Students will be stationed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at north City Market.

Kudos to teacher Katie Cashette, who works with the students in their community service endeavors.

The school is also holding a two-day conference on dyslexia “Diamonds in the Rough: Mining Every Child’s Potential,” coming up on March 16 and 17 at the Sky Ute Casino and Resort. A number of pioneers in the field will be on hand to teach anyone – parent, educator or just folks who are interested in learning – more about the learning disability. The conference costs $125 for adults and $40 for students, which includes light appetizers Friday night, and breakfast and lunch Saturday.

To learn more about the school and the conference, visit

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March is coming in like both a lamb and a lion for the birthdays of Donna Edwards, Adam Sowards, Grace Meyer, Jamie Pannell, Reba Warren, BenBlack, Devin Henry, Kit Kaufman, Bill Krause, Claire Paul, Lane Salazar, Sebastian Barstatis, Linda Heaton, Kathleen Johnson, Zachary Ottman, JoeWeigman, Emmy Miller, Steve Kiely, Grant Pullman, Callie Huckins, WhitneyHuckins, Michael Pratt, Allison Cripe, Dennis Pierce, John Siebert, HaydenSiekman, Lilly Tichi, Geo Freitag, David Bishop, Troy Bledsoe, WarrenBroman, Susie Miller, Frank Tikalsky, Art Cahill, Marci Wait, Lynda Morris and Brittany Jaramillo.

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Life seems filled with bittersweet moments lately. First, Susan Lander steps down after serving as executive director of Music in the Mountains for 11 years, and now Sarah Comerford is leaving the same position from Manna Soup Kitchen.

Both women are leaving their organizations in great shape, but Lander needs a break, and Comerford has been offered a wonderful opportunity to be the grants administrator of the Karakin Foundation.

She says she’s always wanted to be on the philanthropy side of the fence, giving rather than asking, and now she gets to do that. Because the Karakin Foundation gave Manna a significant grant that is allowing the soup kitchen to upgrade its facilities right now, she knows she’ll be able to continue to support it as it evolves and grows.

In spite of the tough economic times that have stretched Manna’s resources during the last few years, Comerford’s superb grant writing skills have kept it in solid shape financially. Whoever follows in her footsteps – and I understand a search will start shortly – will be walking into an organization that makes all the difference in the world for the more fragile members of our community.

So here’s wishing Comerford the best of luck at her new gig, and the Manna board a bumper crop of applicants so they can find someone equally wonderful to take over the helm of their organization.

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Here’s another example why having insurance still doesn’t mean a major medical condition won’t seriously impact a family’s financial situation. The bills are coming in for Joann Hockenberry’s cancer treatment, and she’s had to quit her job because of the treatments.

Her husband, Ted, is well known in the area as a musician – he plays in the Jelly Belly Boogie Band and with Wild Country. He has donated his time and talent through the years in our schools and for fundraisers, and now it’s time for us to give back by supporting him and his wife in this stressful time.

There will be a fundraiser from 1 to 5 p.m. March 11 at The Billy Goat Saloon, 39848 U.S. Highway 160 in Gem Village. The Jelly Belly Boogie Band will host the stage while a veritable plethora of area musicians will entertain the crowd.

Friends have gathered about 40 really cool silent auction items, and the saloon will offer a special on Durango Brewing Co. beer, with all proceeds going to the Hockenberry family.

It sounds like fun – and meaningful – way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Marking another year together are Michael and Cherie Cobb, Larry and Elizabeth Crawford, Dan and Joni Bender, Jim and Carol Lewin, Kevin and TrinaMartin, Cliff and Marilyn Summers, Lon Erwin and Sidny Zink, Bill and Joyce Watt and David and Dora Chavez.

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