From Dyslexia to Doctorate – Lessons Learned from one family’s struggle
BALTIMORE (WBFF) - A mother helping her young son with his homework makes a stunning discovery. It was an ordinary moment that put one local family on an extraordinary path.
Billy Vermillion is now a student at Catholic University in Washington, DC. But some 20 years ago, he was sitting at the family dining room table doing his third-grade homework assignment.
“He couldn't spell the word ‘was,’” says Bonnie Vermillion, Billy’s mother. “I'm like, ‘Billy, was. It's a first grade word.’ His face got red. He balled up the papers, and he started throwing his homework papers on the floor. I just didn't understand what was happening. I was freaking out.”
Billy went to Anne Arundel County Public schools and had an IEP, or individualized education program, for his disabilities. That night, at the table, would set them off on a long and frustrating fight against the school system and the stigmas.
“I knew I was different. I knew I wasn’t keeping up with everyone else,” says Billy. “It's isolating, in every sense of the word.”
Bonnie’s mother says her son was bullied in school.
“He banged his head against the wall repeatedly,” she says. “And he said this, ‘I'm dumb. I'm stupid. I wish I were dead. I wish I were never born.’ My eight year old son.”
Billy’s parents pulled him out of public school and went in search of help. They found it at the Summit School in Edgewater, which specializes in helping students with disabilities.
“They tested him. They said, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Vermillion, Billy has lots of holes in his reading. He doesn't even know he's supposed to read from left to right. If you don't do something, he'll never learn to read,’" recalls Bonnie Vermillion.
Billy was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, which the family says Anne Arundel County Schools never diagnosed. Armed with this new information, the family hired an attorney and took on the county. The Vermillions argued the public school system failed Billy and couldn’t provide what he needed. But the Summit School came at a price, which the family couldn’t afford.
“When we sat down with the county for mediation, I was asked, ‘How far are you willing to take this?’ I said, ‘I'll tell you what. I just bought a house in this county. I'm willing to lose it. I'm willing to lose everything I own and everything I will own, because I'm not gonna look at my son when he's 18 and tell him, we didn't have the money to get you help that exists.'"
It wasn’t easy, and it took years. But Anne Arundel County eventually paid for all of Billy’s tuition at The Summit School, where he thrived. He got the extra help he needed, where software reads electronic documents to him and where classes group students based on ability not age.
“When he graduated from the Summit School in eighth grade, I cried,” says Bonnie. “When he graduated from high school, I cried. When he graduated with his undergrad, he said, ‘Mom, you didn't cry.’ I said, ‘That's 'cause you made it Billy.’"
But Billy isn’t done. Back at Catholic University Billy is studying to get his phD in Biomedical Engineering.
“It is absolutely phenomenal. I couldn't be happier,” says Bonnie. “But Billy has the drive.”
A drive he discovered two decades earlier, at that dining room table, where an 8-year-old boy doing a third grade assignment, learned a much bigger lesson.
“Fight,” says Billy. “As hard as you can, for every scrap that you can.”
The Vermillions want other families to know there are resources available, which includes funding, if your child has a learning disability.