Boy With Learning Disability Teaches Homeless Kids

Michael Guggenheim turned a learning disability into mission to help other kids.

ByBRIAN O'KEEFE via logo

Feb. 15, 2008 — -- Michael Guggenheim suffers from a rare disorder that makes the simple act of writing his name excruciatingly painful. But now that he has found the tools to overcome this pain, he wants to share them with others.

When Michael, now 12, was learning to read and write, his mother noticed something was wrong. He could not write — it actually caused him pain to do so — yet he kept trying.

"You could ask him to draw a picture of something and he could describe it beautifully with words, and then you ask him to draw a stick figure and it would just be a dot on the paper," his mother, Lori Guggenheim, said.

Michael was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a rare learning disability similar to dyslexia that doesn't affect his IQ or any of his other abilities.

Nita Ferjo, an educational psychologist who treated Michael, said when she first started seeing him, he could not even hold a pencil.

"He was the kind of little kid rather than screaming and fighting, he would put his head down and just — be a sad little boy," Ferjo said.

Michael said dealing with the disorder was frustrating. "I used to get angry and I'd rip up all the papers. It was really stressful," he said.

While it will always be painful for him to write, Michael persevered. His family got him a laptop computer, and in a few years he has learned to write with ease on a keyboard, and now excels at school.

"It's like the story of the tree in the front of the grove that gets blown in the wind constantly and is stronger having gone through that," said his dad, Paul Guggenheim.

Last summer, Michael thought of a way to spread the joy he gets from his laptop to children in need. He gathered donated laptops and volunteers his time to teach kids at a Los Angeles homeless shelter to write, work and play on the computer.

"There is a characteristic drive in this youngster that is just remarkable," Ferjo said.

When Michael applied at the shelter for a volunteer teaching position, Cecilia Ribakoff, the shelter's volunteer coordinator, was stunned.

"He's not even a teenager and when he interviewed with me it was a serious interview," Ribakoff said. "For an hour I asked him, 'Well what are you gonna do? What's your course curriculum?' His mom wasn't part of this. His mom was in the car and I was alone with Michael."

On top of his own homework and after-school hockey and basketball, Michael teaches his class once a week. The children at the shelter have gained new skills, and to them, Michael is more than a teacher.

"He's a friend. He's a confidante. He is the guy who brings cool technology, and he's a kid like them," Ribakoff said. "It's one boy helping other kids and with something that has changed his life."

For his part, Michael is very down-to-earth about why he volunteers.

"It's not all about me in this world, it's really about all these other kids," he said. "It's 'cause they are just as smart and nice as me and everyone else, it's just they don't get all the breaks. Some of them before this class never knew what a computer was."

Michael has also formed a non-profit organization called SPLAT, Showing People Learning and Technology, and launched a Web site

As Michael looks toward the future, he thinks more about the kids he teaches than himself.

"The hope for me is that these kids will be able to excel and hopefully never have to come back to a place like this and to be able to be successful in whatever they can," he said.

You can e-mail Michael Guggenheim directly to find out more about SPLAT at