Barbie's Story

"Education became a personal passion when my 6-year-old son Damon ran into trouble in school."

— Barbie Rivera, H.E.L.P. Miami Founder and Principal

Education became a personal passion when my 6-year-old son Damon ran into trouble in school. First of all, Damon was a “model child” and I say that not just because I am his mother, but because in his case it happened to be true. At age 6, Damon was able to dress himself, operate the VCR and help me with his younger brothers and sister.

I could take him anywhere and he never threw a fit, lost control or acted rude. He was extremely easy to get along with and very cooperative around the house. “Damon, it is time to take a bath.” “Okay, Mom.” “Damon, it is time to pick up your toys.” “Okay, Mom.”

Damon had an awesome imagination, a good sense of humor and had many good friends. He was healthy, quite handsome, charming and as I wrote, well mannered.

All of this changed when Damon started school. He became moody, he seemed nervous and he got upset over minor situations such as not being the first of my children to get served at dinner; something that was never an issue now brought him to tears.

To make matters worse, Damon began to bring home schoolwork marked with “D” or “F.” Damon considered himself stupid and began to say this about himself often. I knew Damon was smart but it is hard to convince a child that they are smart when they have a stack of school papers that indicate otherwise.

His first grade teacher told me that my son was “mentally handicapped and in need of medication.” She explained that he confused the letters “b and d.” She went on to say that Damon may also suffer from a “math disorder” as he confused the numbers “6 and 9.” She wanted Damon to be given various psychological tests to locate his disabilities.

I decided to check out his school and I met his teacher. She was very nice but had more than 30 children in her class. Now, I had never gone to college so could not offer a “professional” opinion, but I did have four children of my own under the age of seven and getting all four of them to eat dinner at the same time was a “mission,” so how could one woman effectively teach 30 children how to read and write at the same time. The answer was easy…she couldn’t. My son was lost and not getting help. And worse, Damon was now convinced that he could not learn, which just about broke my heart.

I argued that my son was bright and just needed more attention. She disagreed. To lighten the mood, I told the teacher that I would take Damon off of all family check writing and banking responsibilities until he got his numbers sorted out. (The joke was not received very well!) Again, the teacher suggested Damon see a psychologist, as he showed signs of mental disabilities.

Well this just did not sit right with me at all. I mean Damon was only 6! I did not want him scrutinized by some “professional” nor did I want him labeled with a mental illness simply because he did not understand his schoolwork.

I began to look around for a solution and what I found made me sick to my stomach. I found that children as young as three were being “tested” or “screened” and worse…given medication for disorders that really come down to just normal childhood behavior! I obtained actual checklists used by professionals to locate “disabilities” in children and could not believe what was considered to be abnormal. Things like being distracted, making mistakes, being sloppy and so on were indications of a mental or a behavioral disorder in the child. One checklist for children listed 43 “symptoms” of mental problems which included: does not play quietly, blurts out answers before the question is completed, is afraid of new situations and blames others. I found this whole thing of labeling children, because THEY ACT LIKE CHILDREN, criminal.

What is even more disturbing to me is that children are prescribed medication based on answers to items on a checklist. There are no blood tests, no brain scans, no x-rays performed to locate a true disability yet the child is given potentially harmful CNS medication based on answers to a survey. (CNS means Central Nervous System-these are drugs that alter or slow the central nervous system, such as Concerta, Adderall, Ritalin, Xanax to name a few.) THIS IS NOT A SOLUTION!

When I attended grade school, labeling and medicating was not an issue. None of my classmates were on ADHD medication. And certainly no one died because a student experiencing withdrawals to medication brought a weapon to class.

I came across a whole new approach to learning called Study Technology developed by humanitarian and educator L. Ron Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard wrote that anyone could learn providing they had proper study skills, which includes a very keen ability to correctly define and use words.

Mr. Hubbard believes that students need to approach learning on a proper gradient and only progress to the next level when the step that they are on is fully mastered. In other words, the student must be able “to walk before he can be taught to run.” Mr. Hubbard wrote that dictionaries are a must and several dictionaries of all levels should be on hand for the student to use or the adult to refer to if the student is too young to look words up by themselves. Mr. Hubbard wrote that students need to be addressed as individuals and be allowed to pursue their own interests and that their education should embrace these interests day to day. Students should be encouraged to move at their own pace and not be compared to other students of the same age, or moved along in groups (as a class).

Essentially, Mr. Hubbard was the only person who said that my son’s lack of interest, frustration and inability to grasp the written word could be effectively handled and done so WITHOUT labels or medication.

I wanted my son to be educated in this way so I decided to take Damon out of school and teach him at home utilizing Study Technology. This was probably the scariest decision I have ever made, especially as I had just delivered my fourth baby! So with a newborn in my arms, a toddler in diapers and a 4-year-old daughter, I began to homeschool Damon.

Of course, my parents had a fit that I was taking Damon out of school, as they envisioned him being taught in the woods by wolves…but their concerns faded as soon as Damon started gaining confidence and began winning as a student. Utilizing Study Technology, I put together reading programs, I made my own flash cards and bought fun word games. For math, I made Damon count objects, measure things and we even made a play store to practice using money.

I did a lot of activities and I kept Damon on his toes…not stuck at a desk. It took me about 3 years to get him caught up to grade level, but I ended up getting my son back almost instantly. He was happy, cooperative and interested again.

I felt my hard work was paying off. I never enrolled my other children in school because I wanted to avoid the problems I experienced with Damon.

In addition to my own children, I began to help kids of other parents and soon had a house full of students.

In 1998, I found out about a literacy center in Los Angeles called the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.) that was based on Study Technology and I eventually opened up a Miami branch from my home, calling it H.E.L.P. Miami, where I began to tutor or homeschool up to 40 people a week. It was during this time that I met Tamara Batalha and she did something that was totally unexpected and ended up helping hundreds of children overcome academic labels.

Tamara's Story

"My daughter attended the best private schools in Miami, was enrolled in after school art classes and took dance. However, at age 10, Natalie still could not read and hated school."

— Tamara Batalha, Vice President, H.E.L.P. Miami

I consider myself a very good parent. I am fortunate to be able to provide my children a decent life-style. My daughter attended the best private schools in Miami, was enrolled in after school art classes and took dance. However, at age 10, Natalie still could not read and hated school. She had gone from private school to private school, psychologist to psychologist, yet no one was able to teach her to read.

The teachers at her last school kept passing her to the next grade, not because she could actually DO the work; she was passed as she was much taller than the other kids in her class, so the school wanted to place her with kids her size.

I was told she needed to be evaluated, so I hired the best psychologist. After thousands of dollars and hours of exhausting evaluations the prognosis was that my daughter had a low I.Q. which left her unable to learn.

The professional said, “Your child just isn’t intelligent and will never be intelligent.” At this point I was given the option of medicating her. I asked, “Will the medication teach my daughter to read? Will the medication make her intelligent? Will the medication cure her?” The answer was, of course, “No” to all of the above. I was told the medication would “slow her down” so that I could deal with her better. My daughter needed help, not drugs!

The situation with my daughter was all that I thought about. She was in the 4th grade and miserable. Right before the holidays I was complaining to my dental hygienist during a regular check-up. This woman had a similar story but had sent her teenager to Barbie Rivera for homeschooling and the girl totally turned around.

On her recommendation, I made an appointment to meet Barbie and see if she could help my daughter.

Barbie explained that my daughter missed vital basics taught in Kindergarten and she would be put on an academic program that started at that level.

I was told that Natalie would repeat these missed basics over and over until fully mastered. I was warned the work may seem “too easy” at first, but I was promised that it would increase in difficulty as my daughter moved on. The focus was in getting my daughter to begin to have wins (not losses) with her studies.

Barbie also told me that there would be no homework, which blew me away as I was used to the three to four hour nightly struggle! Under Barbie’s direction, her oldest son Damon (just 17 years old at the time) would be assigned to Natalie as her tutor and would be the one to get her through each step of the academic program.

This was a HUGE change for me. I had much to think about. My daughter would be sitting at a dining room table and being instructed by a teenage boy instead of a certified teacher at a school with a campus. Despite my fears, I decided to give it a try.

Natalie started in January, right after Christmas break. I remember picking her up after her first day of school and her saying, “If you put me back in regular school I will run away from home!” Natalie loved the program! She had six kids at her table and made friends instantly. No one made fun of her for not being able to read, in fact the kids really did not seem to care about that!

Natalie started on her program and, yes, it went back to learning simple phonics but she was actually LEARNING! Within three months, Natalie was testing at 3rd grade level in Reading and Math. This was still behind academically but was a major improvement.

What Natalie did not achieve in 4 years of traditional schooling was accomplished in just 9 weeks of home schooling and with a teenage-chain-wearing-hip-hop boy as her tutor!

At the end of that school year I decided that Natalie would never go back to a traditional school. I also saw that Barbie’s house was full of kids like Natalie and there was a demand for homeschooling services. At this time I approached Barbie with a plan.

I mortgaged my home and offered Barbie $100,000 as seed money to move the school into a commercial location. (Barbie did not ask me for a dime! I just did it!) And 8 months later we cut the ribbon on a wonderful new space!

And here I am, co-founder of a private school. My daughter graduated high school with a 3.6 GPA. She is now a college graduate. I am so proud of her. And I am so happy that I “thought outside of the box” and took action, as this program has helped me too.

Special Acknowledgement

"Frank is the #1 person who gave me encouragement."

— Barbie Rivera, H.E.L.P. Miami Founder and Principal

Frank Zurn is a 30+ year veteran of Applied Scholastics and a legend. I met Frank in 1994 at a standing room only venue where he spoke about children and education. After he spoke I waited for over an hour to meet him and get his advice: I told him that I had four children-three were “normal” but my youngest, a three year old was “crazy.”

Frank asked me what I meant by “crazy.” I told him that Michael was convinced a T-Rex was stalking him for toys and he refused to wear matching socks for some long forgotten reason. Also Michael was convinced he had the ability to be “invisible.” He would do something he wasn’t supposed to and say: “Can’t see me. I’m disappeared.”

Frank said that my son was probably a genius and definitely deserving of dignity and that I had better acknowledge everything he says with genuine interest and respect as he was going to be an impressive adult. And if he did not grow into such an adult, it would be on me for ruining him by calling him “crazy” and trying to mold him into some acceptable, middle class, mediocre humanoid.

Point taken.

Frank stayed in contact with me and is the #1 person who got me looking at expanding my home-school activity and who gave me encouragement throughout the process. Though painfully honest, and at times brutal, I consider him one of my dearest friends. My kids are quite fond of him as well and affectionately nicknamed him “the Wizard.”

When Frank retired he gave me “his box.” I got transcripts to his lectures, notes, advices on education, references, a dictionary he wrote and a whole hat write-up on how to establish a tutoring activity. In other words: I was given something better than gold.

Frank forever changed my operating basis as both a parent and an educator. And I am forever grateful.

P.S. Michael is now a grown “rock star” of a man. It is very obvious that he grew up with a lot of love, respect and positive direction.