Against all odds

Jennifer Cunningham

Jennifer Cunningham dreams of opening a fitness center in her hometown of Cave Junction. As a new graduate of the RCC massage therapy program and an aspiring athletic trainer, Jennifer has all the skills and determination needed to one day make her dream a reality. But that wasn’t always the case.

“I’d been called stupid my whole life,” she said. “I believed for most of my childhood that I couldn’t learn.”

Jennifer is one of over 40 million Americans with dyslexia, a learning disorder in which the brain struggles to connect letters to the sounds they make. Dyslexic students have difficulty processing words, which can cause developmental delays in reading, writing, spelling, and even speaking. However, people with dyslexia are as intelligent as their peers, and with help, they can overcome their reading obstacles and succeed in college and careers.

It took Jennifer many years to discover this truth.

As a child, she and her four siblings were home schooled by their mother, who had never attended high school. Jennifer’s mom also suffered from chronic fibromyalgia pain, which placed a strain on her patience. “My mom would get frustrated when she couldn’t teach me to read, and I didn’t understand it wasn’t my fault. Eventually I felt given up on, and I ended up basically uneducated,” Jennifer said.

Her parents enrolled her sporadically in a public school, and each time she struggled to learn and fit in. In third grade she got into a fight with a bully, and her parents pulled her out of school. In middle school she got in trouble for acting out, which led to community service and ultimately juvenile court. Each attempt at traditional education resulted in heartache and hard consequences. On her sixteenth birthday, Jennifer ran away from home and entered the foster care system, where the cycle of hurt continued.

However, she did experience some bright spots along the way. As a young child, Jennifer discovered she could do math because it involved numbers and not words. “I’d roll up these papers with A’s and put them in my Barbie box because I was so proud,” she said. During one brief foster stay, Jennifer was welcomed at a small public high school until she transferred to a larger school where she again got lost in a sea of “smarter” kids and eventually dropped out. Yet these glimpses of potential fueled her with just enough hope to endure the hardship of her youth until she was old enough to carve her own path.

At age 19, Jennifer reconnected with a childhood friend named Ed Cunningham. One year later, they got married. “I married an amazing man with an amazing family,” she said. In 2007, they started a family of their own. Today Jennifer and Ed have two beautiful children, ages 12 and 4, and Jennifer has invested boundless love and energy into stopping the cycle of negativity.

“At first I decided I’d be a good stay at home mom, and that would be my life’s ambition,” she said. “But then my daughter started kindergarten and then first grade and the homework got harder.” Jennifer realized she could not help her daughter unless she learned too.