Reading, writing, and relating to others; they’re fundamental skills for success in school – and life. And, they’re three things that Andy Marso nearly lost the chance to do six years ago. In May 2004, the St. Cloud native nearly died after falling ill with bacterial meningitis while finishing his senior year as journalism major at Kansas University. After a three-week coma and suffering from septic shock, Marso lost the circulation in his hands and feet and spent months in the hospital, enduring 16 surgeries to amputate his fingers, toes and half of each foot.
After recovering from this life-changing experience, Marso tapped into his love of reading and writing—and gave back to the community that supported him and his family through their difficult days— by becoming a Minnesota Reading Corps literacy tutor. The Reading Corps is a statewide initiative to help every Minnesota child become a successful reader. The program matches trained AmeriCorps members and community volunteers with children from age 3 to third grade who are at risk for not reading at grade level. As a tutor, Marso worked one-on-one with students at Madison Elementary School in St. Cloud—and his lessons went far beyond reading.
“The Minnesota Reading Corps is a program where you can really make a difference, not only in a child’s ability to read, but also in their lives, in their consciousness of the world around them,” said Marso.
“I was nervous about how the kids would react to my disability. I don’t wear any devices—it’s just my right thumb and what’s left of my left. But in the end, it turned out to be a really good thing for me. It was great working with kids because they’re so open and so accepting —they unintentionally help you become less self-conscious about your disability.”
Each year, approximately 20 percent of AmeriCorps members in Minnesota disclosed having a disability, including spina bifida, cerebral palsy, visual and hearing impairments, lupus and multiple sclerosis. ServeMinnesota, the organization that administers AmeriCorps programs, is recognized as a leader in including individuals with disabilities. In a survey, 97 percent of members who disclosed having a disability agreed with the statement, “I would strongly recommend serving in AmeriCorps to anyone.”
Although Marso didn’t ask for specific equipment or accommodations to aid him, he said the Reading Corps team does offer accommodations to help members and volunteers with disabilities perform their service. For example, the Reading Corps has provided services and tools such as sign language interpreters and incorporating microphones into training sessions to assist members with hearing impairments, as well as individual coaching and computer skills training. ServeMinnesota has also provided accommodations and support to assist members with disabilities including flexible schedules, computer software, special keyboard, adjustable table, tape recorder, and other miscellaneous tools.
Marso has completed his Reading Corps service, and returned to reading and writing in a different way – this time at the University of Maryland, where he’s working on a master’s degree in journalism (in part, thanks to the education grant he received upon completing his year of service to the Reading Corps). He has also written a manuscript, For Life and Limb: My Battle with Meningitis, which he hopes to publish soon to continue educating and inspiring others.
“It’s great that the Minnesota Reading Corps welcomes diversity—these kids will be so connected to the world, and will be comfortable with people who look different than them,” Marso said. “The next time these students interact with amputees and others with disabilities, it’ll be easier for them to understand and to deal with.”
For more information on the Minnesota Reading Corps, please visit www.MinnesotaReadingCorps.org, or call 651-251-9075 or toll-free 866-859-2825.