Elizabeth Ryan ’12 smiled, remembering the day she helped a student from Vartan Gregorian Elementary School dress up as a superhero. Arianna didn’t want to settle for a mask and a cape, Ryan recalled — she wanted to play with plaster.
“We made a plaster wristband that went up to her elbow — like a Spiderman kind of thing,” Ryan said, laughing. “She was so excited.”
For Ryan, mentoring Arianna was part of a weekly routine last spring. With other volunteers from Brown’s chapter of Project Eye-to-Eye, now a national organization with 26 chapters in 14 states, Ryan went to the Fox Point elementary school to explore art with a group of children with learning disabilities.
“It’s an after-school program in which we get to build a one-on-one relationship with kids,” said Ryan, who now coordinates the student group at Brown. “We’re role models, and we’re using art to get through to them.”
David Flink ’02 and Jonathan Mooney ’00 founded the program 11 years ago in an effort to give hope to kids who, like them, had learning disabilities. They wanted to improve the children’s self-esteem, Flink said.
“We wanted to empower kids and let them know that they could get to college,” said Flink, who has dyslexia. “There is no one better to deliver that message than people who have gone through the same situation.”
When first choosing a curriculum, he and Mooney turned to social activist and educator Maxine Greene’s philosophy, which states that “art gives people a voice to advocate for themselves,” Flink said. Each year, an artist-in-residence designs an art-based curriculum that includes activities like finger painting, drawing and crafts for the mentors to use with their students.
“Art is a form of democracy,” Flink said. “This is really what our population needs.”
Flink and Mooney also intend for Project Eye-to-Eye’s mentors to be students with learning disabilities themselves.
“We don’t have to teach our mentors,” Flink said. “They’ve made it to college, and they know what it’s like,” adding that this helps mentors see “eye-to-eye” with the younger students they work with.
During his time at Brown, Flink worked closely with Professor of Education Cynthia Garcia Coll.
“He got all sorts of background knowledge about learning disabilities, how people think about them and treat them,” Garcia Coll said, adding that Flink did “a lot of independent studies” with her.
Flink even offers advice and support to younger students whom he hasn’t worked with through Project Eye-to-Eye. For years, he served as a mentor to Garcia Coll’s son — who has attention deficit disorder — through the struggles he faced in school.
“Forget about college,” she said. “We were uncertain if he was going to make it through fifth grade.”
With Flink’s support, Garcia Coll said, her son became more confident in his ability to achieve academic success and is now applying to graduate school to get a master’s degree in marine biology.
But Flink and Mooney did not want the program to wither after their graduation. For advice on how to build a sustainable business model for the organization, Flink turned to Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine.
With Hazeltine’s guidance and their determination to keep the project alive, Flink and Mooney found the funding they needed to continue working with Project Eye-to-Eye as their full-time jobs after Brown.
Nowadays, Flink comes back to campus as a guest speaker for some of Hazeltine’s classes to encourage undergrads to pursue their own entrepreneurial visions.
“He succeeded,” Hazeltine said. “It’s a great thing.”