Because of Melissa Merritt, some people reading this article might not have been able to do it any other way.
Merritt spent 16 years as a director and instructor at the Children’s Dyslexia Center of Western Pennsylvania. For the past 7 ½ years, she has faithfully discharged these responsibilities while simultaneously battling breast cancer.
Merritt lost that fight on January 8 at the age of 54.
The centre, located inside the Scottish Rite Cathedral, is a non-profit organization that provides free multi-sensory reading and written language tutorial services to children with dyslexia. It is one of 40 such facilities in 13 states whose existence dates back to 1994, when Scottish Rite Freemasons in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction partnered with the Speech Disorders Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital to help alleviate the difficulties faced by dyslexic children.
Elize Orazem, now director of the New Castle center, has spent the past two years as co-director with Merritt and plans to ensure that Merritt’s legacy is maintained.
“Things weren’t meant to be like this,” she said. “But we are excited to carry on his vision and legacy to continue serving this community. We are looking at different ways to perpetuate his memory and his work in the community and in our center.
“We are not slowing down at all. We will continue to build on the foundations she laid for us.
And yet, added Orazem, Merritt didn’t just leave big shoes to fill.
“Impossible shoes,” she said.
Amy Creese, the center’s secretary since 2007, agreed.
“She loved teaching kids to read,” Creese said. “If the center could not integrate them, because there was a waiting list, she registered them personally and supervised them.
“She wanted the children to learn to read. She had a passion for it. »
Masonic Dyslexia Centers use the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching children with dyslexia. The system, according to the national public media literacy initiative Reading Rockets, “was the first educational approach specifically designed to help struggling readers by explicitly teaching letter-sound connections”. It includes a “multi-sensory” approach, which is considered very effective in teaching students with dyslexia. »
Merritt, Orazem said, started as an advanced-level instructor and later became a therapeutic-level reading specialist. and it wasn’t just students she taught.
“She trained all the tutors at the initial level – which everyone does when they arrive – and then you move on to the next course,” Orazem said. “We are talking about a 90 hour course with a 100 hour internship that she would supervise. She taught and then supervised each intern.
In total, according to a post on the local center’s Facebook page, Merritt “has trained and equipped numerous educators in 7 counties in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, impacting the reading development of thousands of pupils”.
As director of the center, Merritt added fundraising to her to-do list around 2008.
Former center board member Dale Perelman explained that originally Masonic organizations fully funded their dyslexia centers, this changed with the onset of the 2008 recession.
“They started realizing how much money it was and they started cutting back,” Perelman said. “Then more and more local groups had to run their own program. and that’s what our board did.
The added responsibility didn’t seem to deter Merritt, Creese recalled.
“She just went with it,” she said. “It was like she thrived on it. The more you gave her, the harder she worked on it. It didn’t matter how sick she was.
Indeed, Orazem said, Merritt still prioritized his duties at the center even as his cancer spread.
“She was an inspiration,” Orazem said. “No matter what was going on in her life, no matter how sick she was, she was always calling us, saying ‘Hey, what’s going on? I’ll be there tomorrow. She had come in a wheelchair, she came with a full brace, she was so passionate about the kids in our community.
“That pushed her to keep going. She kept tutoring the children, free of charge, because she just wanted every child to have the opportunity to read.
And that, Creese said, was the focus of the last text she received from Merritt.
“She said, ‘Keep everybody positive,'” Creese said. “That’s the kind of person she was. She would think of others.