Five years ago, the Morelli family of Park City decided to honor the legacy of their son Joseph, who had dyslexia but was forging a life for himself before his untimely death.
Now the Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation has a national impact. The awardees of this year’s scholarships will be announced next month.
Joseph’s mother, Dr. Barbara Wirostko, said that this year, the Foundation has awarded some $66,000 to 41 recipients. Those include 11 in Utah, and six in Park City.
After receiving applications earlier this year, an 8-member committee made the selections. Applicants must be a high school or college student, must have dyslexia, dysgraphia (difficulty with writing) or dyscalculia (difficulty with math.) and plan to go into the STEM fields.
Dr. Wirostko also told her story in a TED talk, which she posted in April. She recalled the shock when a school counselor told her that young Joseph was failing.
“Joseph was always a slow reader,” Wirostko explained. “He struggled with reading. He was slow to speak. When he was 2, we had him in speech therapy. And he was always average, and his grades would vary. He has A’s and B’s in some classes. Math, science he’d be doing great in—English, Spanish C’s and D’s. But when we got that phone call—I mean, you’re right, to have that conversation with a guidance counselor. And we said, “We’re not educators, we’re physicians. But maybe he’s got a learning challenge and they said, “Oh no, we would have picked it up.”
The condition wasn’t very apparent, because Joseph figured out how to compensate.
“I said to him, ‘Joseph, your grades are all over the place. Why do you get A’s sometimes and 100 and the next time you fail on an English test?’ And he laughs and he goes, ‘Because I cheat, because I can’t do the work.’ Wirostko continued. “And I said, “What about math, your grades are always great in math. He goes, “Oh math’s easy. I don’t need to cheat in math.” And it was that philosophy to do anything to try to get by. And it’s a spectrum, like anything. There’s wide ranges in people’s ability to compensate and to learn and in what they can accomplish.”
The family, then based in New York, got a lawyer and was able to obtain accommodations.
“And the accommodations were so life-transforming for him,” Wirostko said. “And I see it now with our applicants too. They’re out there fighting for their accommodations in school systems, in high school and college across the country. And it’s—I have no words. It’s crazy that education should be that difficult to obtain for a child that really wants to learn.”
Joseph was able to continue to college.
“He had accommodations,” Wirostko explained. “He had books on tape. He had assistive technology. He was language-exempt, he didn’t have to take a language; Spanish was torturous for him. Now with technology, there’s spell-check, grammar link. He also had extra time on tests, so he had the ability to ask the teachers to take the test in a separate room and had the extra time. And then he could have tests read to him, which also was another huge, transforming accommodation.”
Joseph died when he was a junior. His mother said that soon after they came to a decision about how to remember him.
“I just didn’t want to see people spend a lot of money on flowers that were going to die,” Wirostko continued. “That really was my mind thinking at that point. What a waste of money. Joseph would have thought this was just a waste of money. And so, we said why don’t we start a scholarship, and had no idea it would grow to what it is now.”
This year’s recipients will be honored at an event on August 24th, at The Shed at Promontory.