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A mission to give back

Denise Bankston hugs Central Park Elementary School students after she surprised the school with a generous donation from her A-Kids-Choice Foundation. The local non-profit, whose mission is to give students with learning differences a voice by providing teachers with more knowledge and wisdom through the empowerment of outreach programs and specialty training opportunities.

Denise Bankston’s A-Kids-Choice-Foundation has grown from helping one student to hundreds

It’s easy to see that Denise Bankston’s life revolves around giving back.

Bankston, known as DeeDee, enjoys spending time in the schools she has ‘adopted,’ sharing hugs with students and giving them hope for a brighter future. What started as a journey to help one student turned into helping hundreds, if not thousands, of Bossier Parish students through her work with A-Kids-Choice Foundation.

“I can honestly say I didn’t know the legacy this would create,” Bankston said of the foundation she created four years ago. “I have a lot of love to give and God has given me the grace for caring about others.”

This story begins many, many years ago when Bankston’s youngest child, JT, entered the doors of Apollo Elementary in Bossier City. She knew early on that he was different from her older children and that JT had a high intelligence level for such a young age.

However, Bankston said his reading and comprehension skills were weak. In the third grade, they discovered JT had learning differences – dyslexia and dysgraphia.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities defines dyslexia as a “language processing disorder” that “can hinder reading, writing, spelling and sometimes even speaking.” Children and adults with dyslexia “simply have a neurological disorder that causes their brains to process and interpret information differently,” the NCLD website states.

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects writing and makes the act of writing difficult. The NCLD states that “people with dysgraphia can have trouble organizing letters, numbers and words on a line or page.”

As a parent, Bankston realized there were no tools or services available for children with learning differences.

“Special ed. classes are not for students with special learning differences,” she added.

JT entered the fourth grade where his teacher, Sherri Pool, took a significant interest in his case. Pool gave JT the confidence he needed before learning differences were ever looked at, Bankston said.

The two had many meetings to talk about JT’s progress through the next two years. Then she had to make a decision – keep JT in Bossier public schools or find a school to accommodate his needs?

Bankston pulled JT out of Bossier and put him in Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport because “it was all we had in the area” and she “wanted to take advantage of that.”

JT spent two years at Evangel before asking his mom to return to public schools in the eighth grade.

“I allowed him to go, but I was nervous,” Bankston said. “I knew this would provide an insight to where he was with his education.”

This, Bankston said, was JT’s turning point.

“I became a very strong advocate. My boy was not going to fail. That became my mission,” she said.

Every part of their journey from the eighth grade on was a God send, Bankston said. They were able to find a tutor specialized in learning disabilities to work JT through the school year and also get him ready to enter high school. However, some unsettling news set them back a few steps.

“I was told he would never graduate from high school,” she said. “I didn’t get mad though.”

Instead, Bankston went home, prayed and listened for the answer. Then it came – she set out across the country to find a school that would accommodate her son.

“This was big for me. It gave me strength as a mom and empowered me to turn a negative into a positive,” she said. “I left my home and my family to find a school for my boy.”

After searching (literally) around the United States, Bankston found the Landmark School in Boston. Its mission is “to enable and empower students with language-based learning disabilities (LBLD)” for them “to realize their educational and social potential through an exemplary school program complemented by outreach and training, assessment, and research.”

Although the waiting list for new students was long, but JT was accepted because of the severity of his dyslexia.

“That was it. That was our school,” Bankston said. “There was no turning back.”

Then she had another choice to make.

“We came back to Louisiana and had a family talk,” Bankston said. “We decided that JT and I would leave our family behind in Louisiana and move to Boston. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

However, there is a bright side to this story.

“Landmark was a God send for us,” Bankston said. “My boy was writing essays. That was a big deal for us.”

All the pieces of the puzzle finally came together for JT. He learned how to express his thoughts in writing and could also understand what he was reading.

Not only did he graduate from high school in 2005, but he went on to earn a college degree in 2010.

On her way back to Louisiana from Boston, Bankston knew she had a lot to be thankful for. She started thinking of ways to repay Sherri Pool, the teacher who never lost hope in her son.

Bankston met with Pool, who is now the Principal at Curtis Elementary School, to express her gratitude in a big way. After months of prayer, Bankston decided to personally adopt Curtis Elementary School through her new foundation, A-Kids-Choice.

“I knew in my heart that this would be big,” Bankston added.

And big is right. The very first donation to Curtis Elementary from A-Kids-Choice totaled $30,000.

In its four years, A-Kids-Choice has donated thousands more to its adopted elementary schools, including Curtis, Legacy, Meadowview, Carrie Martin and, just recently, Central Park. Even more important is the priceless educational opportunities awarded to educators throughout the parish by attending the Landmark School in Boston for training.

Bankston’s goal now is to see that every school in Bossier Parish will be affected by A-Kids-Choice.

“It’s a very emotional and rewarding experience for me,” she said. “I would be selfish if I kept to myself what Landmark did for us and didn’t share it with the teachers and students in our community.”

Her efforts are certainly far from over though. Bankston wants to eventually expand the language based materials into the local middle and high schools.

Then, she wants to create A-Kids-Choice learning center.

“It’s all for the kids. These are strategies, skills and tools they will utilize forever,” Bankston said. “It may take a year or a couple years, but I’m just patiently waiting. The beauty of all this is having patience and waiting for the next prayer to be answered.”

She encouraged parents of children with learning disabilities to be strong advocates for their children and to never lose hope; and that hope is coming through A-Kids-Choice.

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