Interview: Van Westervelt

Vermont2011047 Camp Spring Creek: Please tell us briefly how you become involved with the Learning Assistance Center at Wake Forest University and what your role is there:

Van Westervelt: Sure. I’m in my 16th year as the Director of the LAC and Disability Services. It has been a great experience here and I am highly engaged in providing academic support services for the undergraduate, graduate and professional school student body as well as disability services for any students who disclose a disability. We serve only Wake Forest students. To understand what we do, our mission statement best represents that. Here’s an excerpt: “…Our purpose is to strike a balance between providing direct assistance for skill building, while facilitating each student’s own discovery process for their individual learning and achievement style in and beyond the classroom…We strive to assist students in receiving accommodations that improve their ability to learn while assisting them to better understand their disability and realize that disability can co-exist with outstanding talents and outcomes.”

CSC: What fueled your interest in psychology and specifically in learning disabilities and dyslexia?

VW: My grandmother, Helene Durbrow, in the mid 1930’s had one son who in the 4th grade was struggling significantly with reading and getting very frustrated despite being quite bright in other areas.  From her educational connections as a kindergarten teacher, she was referred to Samuel Orton MD, a neurologist at Columbia in NYC, who was working on intervention approaches for children with dyslexia, so she took her son to him for a consultation.  Dr. Orton instructed her in a remediation plan for her son that was based on what is now known as the Orton-Gillingham Multisensory approach.  He responded well and she was so good at applying this methodology that Dr. Orton began referring other students to her and that became her educational specialty.  She received extensive training from Anna Gillingham, Mrs. Orton and Bessie Stillman as she started remedial programs at several private schools including  Sidwell Friends in DC and Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.

Spurred on by encouragement from Dr. Orton and Anna, in 1946 she started a camp in Vermont at the foot of Mt. Mansfield and called it Camp Mansfield.  Dr. Orton and his team realized that his students often lost significant ground over the summer and also the summer could provide an opportunity to focus on specific skills in need of remediation.  Along with the educational focus at times in the day for peak attention, the camp had an array of recreation and outdoor challenge activities.  My mother happened to be the Camp nurse, so from infancy my two brothers and I were able to escape the humidity of Baltimore city each summer and be fully involved in the nature and outdoor activities that Vermont had to offer. Helene took a position at Children’s Hospital in Boston training teachers there and continued to run the camp for 16 years.  I remember the large wooden plaque that had the camp motto carved in it “A Strong Mind in a Strong Body.”  I think that life style and philosophy must have really imprinted on me because first I became a physical therapist and then a child-adolescent psychologist!

Helene recruited a faculty of teachers who would reside at camp or commute from local towns for the whole 8-week session.  One British teacher from the DC area, Diana King, was so impressed with the remedial approach that she learned from my grandmother that she would go on to establish her own school, Kildonan, and summer camp, Dunnabeck, both originally in PA, geared for bright students with dyslexia. My brother, Mark, would also go on to establish camp programs in the Baltimore area and become the Assistant Head of the Jemicy School for dyslexic students in Baltimore.

CSC: Your area of expertise is assessment and intervention. What would you say to a parent who does not have extra time, energy, finances, or community resources…but has a hunch that “something’s up” with their child’s learning style? How can this parent get his or her child what is needed within the family’s means?

VW: I think the first step would be to consult with the child’s teacher and see what his/her current school has to offer as far as assessment and intervention.  A next option, if there is not insurance or funding for a private evaluation, would be to see if a local university has an evaluation clinic for learning difficulties.  For example in our area, UNCG has two clinics, one for LD and the other for ADHD (336-334-5662), that offer evaluations on a sliding scale basis as far as costs.  The testing is carried out by a doctoral student under the supervision of a faculty member.  The assessments are quite thorough and the students from Wake Forest who I have referred there have found the results to be very helpful.

CSC: If you could help dispel one myth or stereotype about children with dyslexia, what would it be and how would you address it?

VW: Some of the early descriptions of difficulties experienced by children with dyslexia focused mainly on letter reversals and writing backwards.  Through multiple research studies we now know the primary core deficit is in “phonemic awareness,” which for children without dyslexia is the rather automatic process involved in learning that words are comprised of particular component sounds that can be related to letters.  Visual process difficulties that may show up as letter reversals can be associated with dyslexia but that is not the primary problem to focus on in remedial efforts.

Parents are sometimes told by well-meaning physicians or teachers  “Oh he’ll grow out of it” but, as my grandmother used to advise, “You will either pay now or pay later!” This I took to mean that it was important to rally your resources early on to address the problem because addressing it later in a student’s life can be more complicated and require greater resources.