Teen's struggle leads to program of dreams

The Baltimore Sun

A Pasadena teenager whose problems with dyslexia eroded his pride when he was younger will receive a national award for developing workshops to help protect elementary schoolchildren from struggles like his.

Davin Singleton, 18, will be named one of six 2007 National Caring Award Young Adults next month, an honor that annually goes to youths who have demonstrated extraordinary voluntarism and community service.

Last year's recipients included Mattie Stepanek, a nationally renowned 14-year-old who was national ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, raised money for the hungry and co-wrote a book with former President Jimmy Carter. The Caring Institute in Washington, which will hand out the awards Nov. 16 in Washington, also has an honor for adults, whose recipients include Baseball Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

"To be an average Joe and be named for an award like this is unbelievable to me," Singleton says. "I just wanted to help young children so that they wouldn't have to go through what I went through."

Singleton won for his work last fall teaching more than 100 fourth- and fifth-graders in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore how to improve their self-esteem, motivate themselves and set goals and meet them.

Through a series of seminars he calls "Dreamers: How to Become Your Dream, A Hands-On Interactive Workshop," he helped children in two schools every other month play games such as "Dreamer's Feud," a twist on the game show Family Feud, to learn about each other's dreams and challenge each of the children to come up with three ways to fulfill them.

At the end of the sessions, he asked the students to recite a pledge: "I will become my dream. I will not let negative circumstances stop me. I will not listen to anyone tell me that I am not good enough, not smart enough or not talented enough to become my dream."

He said those are words he wishes he had believed when he was in elementary school.

When he was in second grade at Jacobsville Elementary in Pasadena, a teacher who grew frustrated watching him routinely invert numbers told him he would never be able to count to 100. The teachers who saw him confuse b's with d's told him he would never be able to write cursive.

He was dyslexic, but his parents worried that the larger problem was his plummeting self-esteem.

"He would cry before going to school because he was just so worried that people were watching him make mistakes, thought he was stupid," said his mother, Alicia Singleton. "The things his teachers used to describe him wasn't the boy I knew. I knew he was capable of more."

Though he had a patient fourth-grade teacher who used hands-on activities to help the then-9-year-old learn and make honor roll for the first time, their son's overall experience in school continued to get worse. Martin and Alicia Singleton, who own a commercial cleaning service that forced them to work late-night hours, made the difficult decision to home-school their son. He was 12 and about to start sixth grade.

Tutors and a home-schooling curriculum gave him the personal attention, flexible schedule and extra time he needed to begin succeeding in schoolwork.

By the time he was 17, his writing had improved, he was better at math than he ever thought he could be, and he had been accepted into a youth leadership program at the Volunteer Center of Anne Arundel County.

It was at the leadership program in the summer of 2006 that he came up with the idea of self-esteem workshops for elementary schoolchildren. He developed a syllabus, and that fall, he and his mother called dozens of schools in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, hoping someone would be interested.

"We got a lot of rejections but kept trying," Alicia Singleton said.

But then, they heard "yes" from Jacobsville Elementary, the very school where her son had struggled seven years earlier, and New Mark of Excellence, a private school in Baltimore.

Heather Tracy, a counselor at Jacobsville, was one of the first people to review Davin's program and encouraged fifth-grade teachers to adopt it. Tracy said Davin's program filled a void at the school.

"With the emphasis today on test scores, there's not a lot of time to focus on things like dreams and self-esteem," Tracy said. "So we were happy about the chance to bring someone in to talk to the students about it ... because if you don't have the self-esteem piece, the rest of it falls by the wayside."

Singleton said he was shy at first, worrying that the students wouldn't like the program. But by his second visit, the students were begging him to come every day instead of every other month.

In helping other students dream, he came up with something for himself. He wants to become a chef and open a restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. He is studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and plans to graduate in 2010, he says.

"All I wanted to do was help people, because it was really tough for me when I was young, and I wanted these students to know that they had somebody that believed in them," Davin said.


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