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Morelli Foundation raising fund to help students with learning disabilities

Barbara Wirotsko with her son Joseph Morelli
Joseph James Morelli Foundation
Barbara Wirostko with her son Joseph Morelli

A fundraiser to benefit the Joseph James Morelli Foundation will be held later this week to support a scholarship program honoring the legacy of the Park City resident who died in 2014.

Joseph Morelli was a graduate of Park City High School and was attending Montana State University in Bozeman when he was killed in a car accident while camping in West Yellowstone.

According to his mom, Barbara Wirostko, Joe struggled in high school and went from a happy and outgoing student to one who suffered from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Suspecting a learning challenge, his parents had him tested and fought for accommodations and an Individual Education Plan, known as an IEP, to deal with his severe dyslexia.

“We never knew it until he was essentially failing everything in high school, this was back in New York," she said. "So as a freshman in high school, when he had anxiety, depression, low self- esteem, we asked to have him tested. And at the time, the high school back in New York said, well, he can't have dyslexia, he can't have a learning challenge, because we would have picked it up. But he was so bright, that he was actually able to compensate until he couldn't compensate any further.”

Once he had his diagnosis and was able to get accommodations, she says it was life changing for him. While he still struggled with reading and grammar, he excelled in math and science and was accepted to MSU to focus on mechanical engineering.

When he passed away, Wirtosko says people wanted to help, so in lieu of flowers, they asked friends and family to help fund a scholarship in his name.

The scholarship was started to help other young adults with learning differences who are pursuing a STEM field after high school to receive some financial help.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Wirostko admitted. “And the crazy thing is, is that this organization that we have founded, it has become so much more than just a financial support. It now provides resources, mentoring, webinars, support for parents, the kids, and we have given away over half a million dollars in nine years, to roughly 180 kids around the country.”

The first year there were eight applicants, and the foundation gave away $5,000 to two Utah students. Today, she says they receive about 250 applications from across the country. In addition to the private fundraising they do, they also receive grants from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, Promontory Foundation, and the annual Live PC Give PC fundraiser.

Students are supported throughout their upper education, whether it’s at a university or a trade school. Scholarship recipients, she says, are now serving as mentors to new students and hold weekly meetings with them throughout the school year to ensure they’re staying on track. It’s estimated that the dropout rate of those with learning disabilities is about 30% after the freshman year. She says they’ve reduced the drop out rate to 0 for the students they mentor.

The foundation’s leadership is also working with colleges and universities to provide the accommodations necessary for learning-challenged students to succeed.

“What I tell our students all the time is when they go looking at colleges, ask where's the disability office located,” she said. “And the University of Utah has moved their office into a student building now where it's visible, it's bright. They're increasing their counseling capabilities. It's located next door to the tutoring office. So again, it's making those proactive changes that embrace all the students with disabilities and learning challenges, but really just sending the message of inclusivity.”

The fundraiser to support the Joseph James Morelli Foundation will be held Saturday, Aug. 19 at The Shed at Promontory. For more information see www.morelli.foundation.