“We love to laugh,” says Kathryn (Katie) Zarlengo, executive director of the Zarlengo Foundation. Zarlengo Foundation supporters yucked it up with Jeff Foxworthy last month at their annual fundraiser, Evening of Comedy.
Yet the Zarlengo Foundation’s work lies beyond laughing matters. “Our main emphasis is helping children with learning disabilities,” says Zarlengo. She knows firsthand the challenges of living with a learning disability. Zarlengo struggles with dyslexia. “One of five people have a learning disability. We zoomed in and narrowed down our focus to help these kids. If we’re able to unlock the way kids with learning disabilities learn, they can go on to become fabulous inventors, people making great contributions. Walt Disney and Thomas Edison were dyslexic. Governor John Hickenlooper spoke with us about his dyslexia,” she says. “We just need to unlock their intelligence, and people with learning disabilities can go on to do great things.”
Zarlengo knows that the opposite is true, too. “If we don’t diagnose learning disabilities, these people struggle through school. I didn’t learn how to read until high school, so I know exactly how these kids feel. I graduated eighth grade with a first grade reading level. I was illiterate when I walked into high school. My mom was a special education teacher, and we all knew something was wrong,” she says. “It was terrible getting the diagnosis, but once we figured it out, I spent high school learning how to read.”
She graduated Regis University with an undergraduate degree in business administration and went on to earn an MBA. Executive director of her family’s foundation since 2007, Zarlengo is the sole employee. “We do have a super involved board,” she says. “Event time is a little crazy. And like every nonprofit, we don’t have enough time or resources, but we make it work, and it all turns out well.” One comprehensive pilot project funded by the Zarlengo Foundation turned out especially well. “Explore the www.1in5.org website,” Zarlengo urges. “We funded a program that just went national. And we’re partnering with the Archdiocese of Denver schools.”
The Zarlengo Foundation offers support to both elementary schools and high schools. They also underwrite scholarships to Rocky Mountain Camp for Dyslexic Kids. The foundation’s investment yields enormous long-term societal returns, Zarlengo says.
“If undiagnosed, many people with learning disabilities wind up in prison, unemployed, underemployed. If you can’t read, you have low self-esteem. People think you’re lazy or dumb,” she says. “It’s staggering to think of how life can be different.”
Founded in 2002, the Zarlengo Foundation’s history harkens to the early days of Denver.
“My dad and uncle started the foundation,” Zarlengo says. “My family is extremely large, and we’re all in Denver. It started with two brothers who came from Italy and worked their way up. They had nothing. It was the typical immigrant story: no money, not a lot of education. They built a business in lumber when the railroads and Coors were getting started. They worked really hard and raised nine kids, seven boys. They went through college and on to medical school and law school.” The Zarlengo Foundation’s roots lie in deep gratitude, Zarlengo says. “My dad and uncle looked around after Christmas one year and said, ‘We are so blessed in this country. We want to give back to our community that gave to us.’”
In keeping with an emphasis on education, the Zarlengo Foundation conducts an annual book drive. “We collect all kinds of books. We’ve created an interesting hybrid because some of the books go to low-income schools that need books for their library or books to go home with kids for summer,” Zarlengo says. “We also have a board member who sells some of the collected cookbooks and novels on Amazon. We turn those book donations into cash to help cover costs of our fundraiser.” All funds raised by the Zarlengo Foundation remain in Denver. “Denver is where our roots are, and we have a big emphasis on the Denver metro area,” Zarlengo says. “This is our community. We’re not trying to change the world, but we are trying to change the lives of these kids in Denver.”
Zarlengo, age 32, is a perfect case study proving that people with dyslexia can excel. “I can tell kids that it gets better if they put the work in,” she says. “It’s all about learning how you learn, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Getting a dyslexia diagnosis does not mean your life’s over or you’re never going to be anything. Our foundation wants to help as many kids as possible get to the point that they can accomplish something. They can provide something for society. They can be somebody.” Anybody.
• Mission: The Zarlengo Foundation supports metro Denver children with learning disabilities.
• Main fundraiser: Night of Comedy, annual late summer event generating funds to support programs for schools and camp scholarships.
• How you can help: Watch for upcoming news about the 2016 Night of Comedy and plan to attend. Donate books. Make a cash donation. Support the Zarlengo Foundation on Giving Tuesday, Dec.1.
BIO: Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, is the author of the novel Glass Halo, set in Denver, and Laid-Back Skier. She also writes regularly for The Denver Post and is the founder of Friday Jones Publishing.
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