Marianna Gillen with MARI Kits

M.A.R.I. Kits Provide Tools to Success for Students with Dyslexia

Mariana Gillen stood before television cameras, explained how she hoped to elevate students who struggle with dyslexia and displayed a degree of composure that belied her 14 years.

The creator of M.A.R.I. Kits (Making Awesome Reading Improvement) for students with dyslexia drew the attention of the media, United Way Suncoast and one very special sponsor when she delivered the kits to the Sulphur Springs Resource Center in September. But for Mariana, a Cadette in Girl Scouts, the kits represent more than a successful completion of her Silver Project.

It’s also a personal passion because specialists diagnosed her with dyslexia as a second grader. Fortunately, her diligent parents helped her acquire simple but effective tools to help her deal with the challenge, including headphones, a tool to help you hear yourself read and word tiles. Now she’s working to put those tools in the hands of students facing the same hurdle.

“I used these tools while at their age and struggling with dyslexia,” Mariana explained. “I thought it would be amazing to be able to put them together and put them inside a kit.”

Mariana not only made the kits her mission, she successfully solicited sponsors to underwrite the cost of the kits. None proved to be more enthusiastic than Columbia Restaurant Group president Richard Gonzmart, who dealt with learning challenges but didn’t come to the realization he had dyslexia until he was well into his adult life.

“This is a special young lady,” Gonzmart said. “I was diagnosed at the age of 43 with dyslexia. It’s not a disability. It’s a gift we have and we want to help children realize they’re not stupid. We just process things differently. It just made me proud to get to know her and to know she cares about other children.”

Other sponsors include Julie Weintraub’s Hands Across the Bay, Rice Psychology Group, TLC Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics, and Target.

Mariana delivered the kits to the United Way Suncoast Sulphur Springs Resource Center on Sept. 15. UWS will distribute the kits to Kindergartners and first, second and third graders. We strive to help every student in our region read on grade level by the end of the third grade, especially those students who may learn differently.

“I always think it’s remarkable when young people can take a situation that is challenging and turn it into an opportunity to grow and to strive and to help others grow and strive,” said United Way Suncoast chief advancement officer Kari Goetz. “This is leadership and strength.”

Although Mariana spoke only to local media, WFTS-Ch. 28 shared the story with its affiliates, and stations around the nation broadcast the story of MARI Kits. It’s a great start for Mariana, the daughter of UWS Chief Marketing and Communications officer Jim Gillen, but she’s far from finished.

“I want to be able to continue this and be able to give the kits to children,” Mariana said. “I know how hard it is for people to find who they are. You’re basically thinking what’s going on, why can I not read? These kits will be able to help them.”

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