By Elana Warsen

Shyla Puelston has always been committed to helping her children achieve their goals, but when her oldest son Gavin showed signs of dyslexia, she wasn’t sure how to help him. Shyla sought support from Great Minds Learning Center and found more than just tutoring services for Gavin. She also gained empowerment to help her entire family cope with the effects of dyslexia.


Dyslexia has been part of Shyla’s family for generations. Her father is dyslexic, and so are three of Shyla’s five children.

“My dad didn’t get help when he was young and didn’t understand what the problem was until he was forty,” Shyla says. “To this day he can’t spell.”

Fortunately, the future looks brighter for Shyla’s children. With help from Great Minds Learning Center, Gavin, Delainey, and Camden are learning and achieving their goals.

Shyla and her husband Jeremiah first sought help from Great Minds Learning Center in 2012 when their son Gavin was in second grade. Gavin had struggled academically since preschool, showing little improvement despite hard work at school and at home.

“The interventions offered at the school were not benefitting him,” says Shyla. “He’s very smart. Yet he had to be pulled out of the classroom during class time to do an intervention that wasn’t working. At home we would practice more when he was already sick of trying to learn. He would get upset and I would get upset. It was very frustrating.”

Finally, a math assignment provided insight into Gavin’s difficulty. Asked to write numbers 1-100 in sequence, Gavin produced a paper with errors characteristic of dyslexia.

“I looked at Gavin’s math assignment where he had written 1-100 in sequence and all of the numbers were written backwards and reversed.” Shyla recalls. “There was a definite pattern to the mistakes.”

Suspecting dyslexia, the Puelstons decided to contact Great Minds Learning Center Director Marianne Jylha for her expert opinion.

“Marianne met with Gavin and she told us he has a pretty severe case of dyslexia,” says Shyla, who enrolled Gavin in twice weekly tutoring sessions. “The difference is in Marianne’s program. Unlike the school intervention, Great Minds’ intervention is designed to address dyslexia.”

The results were almost immediate.

“Gavin started tutoring with Marianne at the end of October,” Shyla recalls. “We noticed by January or February, ‘Wow, he’s picking up on the skills!’ It was kind of cool to watch it happen. He started out at a beginning to middle kindergarten level and quickly caught up to grade level.”


At the same time that Gavin was learning about math and reading, his parents were learning about dyslexia.

“It makes so much sense now with what we have learned about dyslexia. All of the things that Gavin did as a kid—Marianne explained that they are common traits of dyslexic kids. He couldn’t tie his shoes when he was little. He never crawled,” she says. “She also told us it can be hereditary, which we didn’t know.”

When Gavin’s younger siblings, sister Delainey and brother Camden, also showed signs of dyslexia in elementary school, Shyla and Jeremiah knew how to help. With Great Minds Learning Center in their parenting arsenal, they were able to spare their children the frustration of failure.

“I’ve had people suggest to me, ‘Oh, why don’t you get your kids an IEP and then they can qualify for special education services?’” Shyla says. “An IEP isn’t going to help. They are smart kids. They don’t need to be pulled out of class. They need dyslexia instruction, which is what they get from Marianne.”

Working with Marianne has paid off.

“Thank God for Great Minds!” Shyla says. “I don’t know where my kids would be without their help!”

Now 14, 11, and seven, Gavin, Delainey, and Camden are keeping up with their classmates and getting ready to go to a new school. The family is moving to Florida, and they plan to take Great Minds with them. They will use the computer to do virtual tutoring sessions from afar.

“The tutoring centers I’ve looked into in Florida just aren’t a good fit,” Shyla says. “They are not specific to dyslexia the way that Great Minds is. We have a personal connection with Marianne. She is so genuine and passionate. You can tell she really wants to reach the kids and make people aware of the realities of dyslexia. At the other tutoring centers it seemed like it was just a job.”

Shyla believes that Marianne’s combination of passion and expertise can make a difference for other families too.

“I have recommended Great Minds to so many friends and relatives who have kids struggling in school,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Marianne will be honest about what she sees as the problem and about how well she can help. She’s not in it for the money.’ A lot of people have seen the same success that we have.”

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By Elana Warsen

Turning a life around isn’t easy. Just ask 17-year-old Beau Anwiler.

A couple of years ago Beau’s future looked bleak. He was in trouble with the law, using drugs, and failing at school. Now he’s sober, raising a daughter, and setting his sights on a rewarding career. Beau credits his recent success to his own hard work and the faithful support of caring adults. The high school junior and Great Minds Learning Center student recently decided to share his story in hopes of inspiring others to believe in second chances.

“I struggled in school,” Beau says. “They kept passing me along from grade to grade. I didn’t want to ask questions and have somebody make a big deal about it. So I just didn’t learn.”

Ninth grade brought big changes for Beau.

“My mom finally got fed up with me not knowing anything,” Beau explains. “I was at a second grade math level. I didn’t know two times two.”

He left the Grand Rapids school district and started at Northern Lights Community School, a project-based charter school in Warba. Around the same time, his mom Patti Jo heard about Great Minds Learning Center from a relative and requested a dyslexia screening for Beau.

“I performed a dyslexia screening and found convincing evidence of dyslexia,” says GMLC Executive Director Marianne Jylha. “In ninth grade Beau was still having significant difficulty reading and spelling and he lacked the basic skills for reading new words. I really don’t think Beau thought he could learn math when we first started. He just wanted to leave it as is. People with dyslexia quite often have difficulty memorizing random things like math facts and lack of this basic skill prevented Beau from learning other concepts.”

The findings came as a shock for Beau, who had long ago given up hope of ever experiencing academic success.

“It hit me the next day,” he says. “I had a feeling of relief. Finally we knew a cause for all of the struggling.”

Beau began tutoring with Marianne two mornings a week for one-hour sessions. According to Marianne, his progress was “immediate.” Following a reading lesson in spring 2016 Marianne documented her observation, writing, “Beau is such a fast learner. I tell him once and he’s got it.”

Marianne gives the credit to Beau, whose work ethic she believes will carry him far in all of his endeavors.

“Beau comes in eager and ready to work,” she says. “We work on reading, spelling, math and vocabulary skills. He always attends his lessons and comes prepared to learn.”

Beau says working with Marianne has been life-changing. It took time to break some of the bad habits he had formed over the last several years, but Marianne’s steadfast presence supported him each step of the way.

“When I started tutoring I was still using drugs. I wasn’t all there. I was struggling really hard,” he says. “Marianne was consistent. She stuck with me. The first few weeks were really hard, then I got in a groove and it went really fast. We made learning plans and it started to click. Within the first year I knew basic math and now know algebra. I’m caught up to grade level.”

As Beau experienced academic success he also aspired to higher standards of personal conduct.

“I was going down a bad path,” he recalls. “Drugs and other bad stuff. I was on probation and in the criminal justice system for three years. My not learning was a big part of it. I wasn’t passing school, so I thought, ‘what’s the point?’”

Starting at Great Minds was the new beginning Beau needed to turn his life around.

“Tutoring helped!” he says. “For me it was a huge life changer. I got off of probation in tenth grade. Overnight I was just done with all that bad stuff. I grew up.”

Chance encounters with people who knew Beau during his lowest days highlight his recent improvement.

“I used to play on the Grand Rapids travel basketball team. People didn’t want me around their kids because of my bad choices,” he says. “What really meant a lot to me was when the parents of one of my former teammates saw me at the store after I had cleaned up my act. They said I was looking really good and should start coming around their kid again.”

Lately Beau has been spending a lot of time around one kid in particular: his one-year-old daughter Izzy. Measuring formula and reading bedtime stories are just a couple of the practical applications for the skills he’s developed at Great Minds.

There soon will be professional applications as well. In June Beau begins basic training for the National Guard in South Carolina. He’ll return to Minnesota to complete his final year of high school, and then pursue a career in welding or heavy equipment operation.

Beau is first to admit that the goals that are within reach now would have seemed unattainable for him a few short years ago. He wants other people to know that change is possible, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

“It’s all about having people have an open mind because once the door opens to change your situation and address learning disabilities it changes everything and everyone around you,” he says. “That one step into Great Minds made me a better father. If I hadn’t gone to Great Minds I probably couldn’t have helped Izzy with her math homework in middle school.”

His mom agrees.

“Before, Beau’s self-esteem was so low that it was affecting his choices. Tutoring helped his self-esteem,” says Patti Jo. “Beau says he will keep attending Great Minds through college. If he wants to, I will schedule it. It saved him. I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to find Great Minds.”

Beau wants other people to know that change is possible for them too.

“My message to anyone questioning whether they can improve is to go out in the community and see what resources are there,” he says. “Just jump in and go for it!”

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By Elana Warsen


When he’s not in school, nine-year-old TJ Holmgren can be found on the baseball diamond, hockey rink, or cruising on a four-wheeler. Most people would be surprised to learn that the Cohasset Elementary third grader, known for his sense of humor and love of the outdoors, has also logged hundreds of hours in a quieter environment—the tutoring classroom at Great Minds Learning Center.

TJ’s tutoring journey began when his first grade teacher raised concerns about his reading progress, prompting his parents to seek out one-on-one tutoring at GMLC. “My husband’s coworker said that Great Minds had helped his daughter, so he recommended we call [Executive Director] Marianne Jylha. Within a week she had us scheduled with a tutor,” says TJ’s mom, Stacy Holmgren.

“TJ came to Great Minds not experiencing success in school,” recalls GMLC tutor Jennifer Skaar, who worked with TJ for two years. “He was insecure and didn’t understand why he was struggling. He was a first grader who wanted to quit school.”

Jennifer was “totally, 100% sure” that TJ was capable of success, but getting there would require hard work. “He came to tutoring twice a week, even in the summer,” Jennifer says. “There were times when he was tired and didn’t want to come, but he kept pushing forward.”

TJ admits that balancing tutoring with school and sports practice was a challenge. “It’s hard going to tutoring after school,” he says, “but Ms. Jennifer makes it fun. She goes over everything a lot to help you understand, and you get to play games.”

Together, TJ and Jennifer set out to fill TJ’s imaginary “toolbox” with “tools” (reading rules) he could use on his own. He started improving right away. “TJ’s toolbox got full real quick,” Jennifer says. “Within two weeks I saw a different demeanor in him. He was more positive. He was smiling. He was experiencing success.”

TJ’s hard work at tutoring led to results in the classroom. On his first grade end of the year reading assessment, his teacher wrote the following note: “TJ has made great gains this year, especially this spring!”

Every few months Jennifer and TJ tracked his progress toward grade level goals using an assessment tool called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). At each checkup the difficulty level of the text increased, and so did TJ’s mastery of grade level skills. His DIBELS score in June 2016 was just 24.5%. By January 2018 it had climbed to 98.9%.

“It makes me proud,” TJ says of his dramatic improvement. “It took a lot of hard work but it feels good.”

Stacy gets emotional when talking about her son’s DIBELS data.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I knew he’d been working very hard. Every single session he came home with reading passages he had mastered. When Jennifer shared his DIBELS results I was in tears. I was shocked to see how much progress he had made since his last DIBELS score [in October 2017]”.

In February of this year, Jennifer gave the Holmgren family another surprise. She told them she thought that TJ was ready to “open his wings and fly,” to graduate from Great Minds Learning Center.

“I was in tears,” Jennifer says of the “bittersweet” realization that her two-year journey with TJ was coming to an end. “TJ was all excited. His mom was in tears.”

Tutoring required hard work and sacrifices for the Holmgren family, but Stacy says TJ’s success was worth it. “Great Minds is worth the investment,” she says. “Don’t be discouraged by the cost or the time it takes you to get to your goal. It pays off in the end.”

TJ rarely opens up about his learning difficulties or his attendance at GMLC, he says. But he broke his silence to send an important message to other kids who might be struggling in school. “Great minds helped me and it can help you too,” he says.