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.

Great Minds Learning Center depends on monthly contributions from sustaining donors to keep the lights on and keep tutoring costs low. We interviewed longtime supporter Jill Somero, who has made monthly donations of $70 since 2015, to find out why she gives to GMLC.

By Elana Warsen

Dyslexia became personal for Jill Somero of Maple Grove, MN when her son Wil reached second grade and was expected to do more writing in school.

“His reading ability was pretty much at grade level, but writing was very painful to the point where if he had to write two sentences he would cry,” says Jill. “He had a lot of difficulty turning his thoughts into words and a really hard time with spelling.”

Determined to help her son, Jill reached out to her childhood friend and Great Minds Learning Center Founder Marianne Jylha, who told her that Wil’s difficulties could be signs of dyslexia. Marianne provided Jill with dyslexia resources she could use to work with Wil at home.

“Once I was able to explain to Wil that some kids learn differently than others the crying stopped and he was willing to work on the techniques Marianne had taught me,” says Jill. “Spelling doesn’t slow Wil down anymore.”

Jill decided to make a sustaining donation to GMLC to help another child without the resources to pay for tutoring.

“I want to do everything I can to help,” she says. “Literacy is the foundation of lifelong learning and I don’t think financial status should prevent somebody from getting that foundation.”

For Jill, setting up a recurring donation to GMLC was a one-time decision with lasting impact.

“Giving is not a decision I make each day,” says Jill, who opted to use her bank's autopay feature to simplify the donation process. “It’s a decision I made once. I figured out how much I could afford and set up an automatic payment through my bank. The check is mailed to Grand Rapids every month. I don’t notice that the money is gone and I’m happy when I do my taxes.”

Jill’s monthly donations allow GMLC students to experience hope and success just like Wil, who is in fifth grade now, and thriving.

“I know where my $70 goes when I send it to Great Minds,” Jill says.” I can think of that one child, like Wil, and know it’s going to them.”

You, too, can make a difference in the lives of children in our community. Become a sustaining donor today. Ask your financial institution about setting up automatic recurring donations to Great Minds Learning Center.

For more information about giving to GMLC, visit our website.

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What does $2,800 buy?  Hope and opportunity.


In our community, access to specialized  educational intervention isn’t limited to families with financial means. One out of three Great Minds Learning Center students receives free lunch at school. Thanks to funding from generous donors, those students can receive our services too.


Lake Country Power sponsored Great Minds Learning Center in the 2018 Kiwanis Minute to Win It challenges on the Feb. 8 at the Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids, taking home the first prize award of $2,800 for GMLC!

The prize money will go directly into the scholarship fund to continue to make tutoring services available to students with financial need.

Ten corporate sponsors competed in a series of silly challenges for the chance to win money for their favorite nonprofits. The four-person team from Lake Country Power gave a fierce performance on behalf of our tutoring center.

LCP Electrical Engineering Technician Angie Clafton spoke to the audience about GMLC’s positive impact on her sons, and GMLC Executive Director Marianne Jylha gave a short talk about our organization and expressed gratitude to all for their devoted support to nonprofit organizations in the area.

We thank Lake Country Power, Grand Rapids Noon Kiwanis Club, and all of our other donors who support our students throughout the year.

Would you like to make a donation to our scholarship fund? Click here to find out how you can be part of the mission to help children and adults accomplish their educational and personal goals. Every dollar helps!

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