2024 Smart Kids Youth Achievement Honorees

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities is proud to announce the winners of the 2024 Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Awards, celebrating the outstanding accomplishments of students with learning differences and ADHD. The awards were presented at the Smart Kids annual spring benefit, at the Woodway Country Club in Darien, Connecticut.

Our amazing honorees were selected from a large group of applicants from all over the country. As you’ll see from their inspiring stories, they remind us all that learning differences need not be a barrier to success, and, in fact, often is the “X factor” leading to success.

Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award 

Devon Kiessling, Piscataway, NJ 

“To put it simply, the deck was stacked against Devon’s academic success,” according to his brother, who said school officials told his parents Devon would always be behind. Diagnosed with ADHD at age seven, Devon is also deaf. He got his first cochlear implant when he was two, and his second at three. As Devon puts it, “ADHD itself is a focusing battle, and hearing loss turns that battle into a war.” Thanks to professional and therapeutic interventions, he has developed strategies to manage the unique aspects of his world, and succeed beyond all expectations. 

Today Devon juggles a demanding course load and extracurricular activities while maintaining a GPA of 4.488 on a 4.5 scale. He has made his school’s President List numerous times, and been inducted into the German, Science, Technical, and National Honor Societies. He’s on his high school cross-country and bowling teams, where he has achieved three perfect games. He volunteers in community programs, works part-time at his local bowling alley, and is the founder of “Rolling with Falcons,” a program to coach bowling for adults with developmental disabilities. As his brother says, “Devon has proven through his work ethic, intrinsic motivation, and his bull-headed stubborn nature, what most would call ‘miraculous’ should be called ‘theoretically achievable.” In Devon’s words, “Nothing drives me more than the challenge of overcoming obstacles to achieve success and proving all the doubters wrong. Bring it on.”

Special Recognition Winner

Rory Andrlik, Naperville, IL

Rory says the challenge of learning to read and spell felt like climbing Mount Everest. And, she adds, being in a Dual Language (English/Spanish) program since kindergarten, seven years before she was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, “felt like climbing Mount Everest barefoot!” 

With extraordinary determination, Rory has developed creative strategies to cope with her learning differences. Driven by self-discipline and a remarkable work ethic, she has been accepted into the National Honor Society, while balancing many extracurricular activities, dozens of volunteer hours, and a part-time job at a biotech lab. Her physics teacher says “Rory’s unwavering constitution propels her forward past adversity, and influences those around her.” Indeed, she has inspired many children with learning differences by publishing a children’s book called The Reading Roar: A Magical Learning Journey. Ranked among Amazon’s Top 50 children’s books on disabilities, the book’s proceeds support the International Dyslexia Association. With an interest in research, science, and food, Rory plans to major in Food Science in college and is excited about what lies ahead!

Honorable Mention Awards

Bryce Hunter, Englewood, CO

“In the vast ocean of learning, my voyage began in tumultuous seas. As I gazed into the depths, I could not help but feel unequipped for the journey. It seemed like my peers sported sleek swim caps, snug anti-fog goggles, and efficient swim fins, while I thrashed about with uncertainty, lacking the equipment to navigate the cloudy waters of academia.” Thus began Bryce’s thoughtful and well-crafted essay. Bryce has indeed found a way to traverse a constellation of diagnostic challenges that include ADHD, Dysgraphia, Auditory Memory Dysfunction, as well as anxiety, processing, and mood disorders.

Bryce spends a great deal of time giving back to his community: He created a Can Campaign where returnable cans are collected and the funds used to address food insecurity and isolation, particularly during Covid. He was honored as a volunteer with The Kroger company for their Zero Hero program that aims to eliminate hunger and waste. He is the recipient of an Ambassador Award from the United Nations Association for special dedication in service to others. He founded Elevate Local CO, a lighthouse support program, and Cyber Leaders, a computer coding program he runs in fourth-grade classrooms. He is also the co-founder of MOBY, a mental health youth task force. Along the way he has not lost sight of his anchor, sharing that “My parents and I  steer the course together.” Smooth sailing is ahead for sure.

Austin Janssen, Old Greenwich, CT

When Austin was tested at age two, and eventually diagnosed with ADD and a language-based learning disability, his family used Smart Kids as one of the first resources to find help. Austin was fortunate that his public school provided various therapists, who recognized his potential, and a special education teacher, who taught him to read using the Orton Gillingham method. Staying on task, processing information, and social skills were challenges for Austin, who says that in addition to working hard, he has learned strategies to cope with these hurdles that have led to academic success and social connections. 

Austin pursued interests in singing and acting. He found a niche, and a mentor, in the Debate Club, and went on to coach debate teams in an inner-city public middle school and a private school in his hometown of Greenwich, CT. Austin’s debate experience and passion for politics led to his work on Governor Lamont’s re-election campaign and, currently, an internship for U.S. Senator Blumenthal, all while he balances the rigors of his freshman year at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Austin credits persistence and self-advocacy for his success to date. In the future, he plans to get involved in local politics in Greenwich to support his home community.

Joseph Turley, New York, NY

A free spirit, creative livewire, an artist! As for so many kids with ADHD, school was a rocky road for Joseph, full of struggles, accomplishments, and setbacks. However, in middle school Joseph’s art teacher encouraged him to dive in and explore his creative talent, which unlocked the gateway to his passion. She encouraged him to enter his work in the Scholastic Awards, where he won multiple awards and had his artwork displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Several of his photos were published in a fashion magazine, and a film he made was in a window display at Barney’s in New York. 

Growing up with ADHD, anxiety, speech disfluency, and several learning differences is no easy task, yet Joseph has found a way to embrace his challenges and use them to fuel his passion. In his own words, “When I reflect on my process as an artist words that come to mind include impulsiveness, craving, hyperfocus. I can see that these also describe ADHD traits. But I would say that it is exactly because of these ADHD traits, not despite them, that I am the artist I am. My ADHD gives me the fuel that pushes me to create art that is novel and excites me. So I would not say that I have to overcome my ADHD, but rather I see it as a good thing that I embrace, something that makes me who I am.”

Joseph is also focused on giving back to the community. “I hope that sharing my journey and whatever future success in the art world I may achieve can serve as an inspiration to other kids with ADHD. That they can embrace the uniqueness of who they are, and celebrate and use this gift rather than want to change themselves. I would advise them to follow their passion. Don’t let people around you convince you to push your square peg into the round hole. There is a place and a path where your traits will fit. Find that and use your passion.”

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