For volunteers and staff working with Michele Shepherd, Volunteer Director at Memorial Regional Medical Center in Mechanicsville, she always presented herself as a poised, well-spoken, and dynamic individual. Recently, she shared about a lifelong personal struggle that she has endured since childhood -- severe dyslexia. Her dyslexia caused Michele a great deal of insecurity and self-doubt, however, she was able to turn a painful personal struggle into passion for helping and serving others.
In 2nd grade, Michele first noticed she was unable to understand what she was reading as well as her peers. Unfortunately, since the actual issue was not identified, her teachers tried to blame it on behavioral issues. “My teachers thought that I talked too much and that this was the reason I didn’t read well,” says Michele. “Whenever report cards were sent out, they always put on mine that my excessive talking was the reason for my reading struggles.” Additionally, Michele self-identified as being the class clown and was often disruptive in class. However, this disruptive behavior was something that she felt shielded her from having attention placed on her learning difficulties.
As she got older, Shepherd continued to struggle with her then undiagnosed condition. She avoided participating in situations in that would require her to read out loud to groups. She avoided taking writing assignments. She longed to read the works of William Shakespeare, but her level of reading comprehension made this impossible. “I would have to read through sentences two or three times,” says Michele. “My reading comprehension was very poor and it was difficult for me to grasp the material.” Her struggles eventually led her to drop out of college during her senior year. Michele says that she was on a path of fear and trepidation leading into her adulthood.
It wasn’t until Shepherd was 35 years old that she decided to reach out to trusted sources for help. “One day it just hit me- I could talk and raise money but couldn’t read or write,” she says. While she was serving on the board for a nonprofit organization, Michele reached out to the executive director of that organization asking to be tested for dyslexia. Upon getting tested, the results revealed that she suffered from severe dyslexia. Michele said that up until she was tested, she thought of herself as “dumb” and that she was basically a failure as a human being. However, learning of learning difference proved that both of her assumptions were wrong.
After her diagnosis, Michele was referred to a reading specialist who began to work with her to overcome her learning difference. “The reading specialist’s name was Willa, and she literally taught me how to read,” Shepherd says. Shepherd used the techniques that Willa taught her to help her improve her reading comprehension and this proved to be a turning point in her life. She went back to college during her 40’s and earned a bachelor’s degree. She was even able to travel to Greece and participate in the study of archaeological sites. “Being able to read added color to my world,” Michele says.
Overcoming her learning difference has also enabled Michele to excel when it comes to working with volunteers. Her struggles have given her an ability to be more aware of the unique gifts and talents of others. "All volunteers have gifts that they can bring to the table,” says Michele. “It is rewarding to identify these gifts possessed by the volunteers and to place them in volunteer roles that allow them to utilize their full potential.” In addition to excelling as a Volunteer Director, overcoming her learning difference has allowed her to shed her fears of failure and actively participate in volunteering herself.
Over the years, Michele has generously volunteered her time to help and mentor individuals who are facing their own life challenges. Michele recalls one instance volunteering as a reading buddy in a school that was particularly rewarding. “I was assigned to a little girl in first grade who would sit in the corner and cry because she didn’t know how to read. By the end of my time working with her, she had become a confident reader.” Shepherd continued, “I always felt that if I could help one person overcome a learning difference, then I will feel like I’ve made a very positive difference in life.” It has been over 25 years since Michele's learning difference was diagnosed. Now, at age 66, she has gone on to make a positive difference in the lives on many people. Michele believes that one of her main callings in life is to help break down the stigma that is associated with learning differences. “I want to encourage parents that if they have a child who is acting out, to look further and deeper. If a learning difference is identified early, you can put that child on a path to overcoming their learning differences and help them lead successful lives.” Indeed, this has been the case with Michele Shepherd, whose success in overcoming her own learning difference has made a positive impact on her life and the lives of others!