Dystinct Journey of Kenley McKenna

Issue 20: Dystinct Journey of Kenley McKenna

From overcoming reading struggles to becoming a national champion baton twirler, a student ambassador for the Reed Charitable Foundation, and Miss Jacksonville's Teen 2024, Kenley McKenna's story showcases determination and triumph.

Zahra Nawaz
Zahra Nawaz

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This article was published in Dystinct Magazine Issue 20 March 2024.

Kenley McKenna is no ordinary teenager; despite facing the challenges of dyslexia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and vision issues, such as binocular convergence insufficiency, ocular motor dysfunction, and visual perceptual dysfunction, her journey is defined by resilience, determination, and a passion for making a difference. From her initial struggles with reading to her remarkable achievements as a national champion baton twirler, student ambassador for the Reed Charitable Foundation (RCF), and reigning Miss Jacksonville's Teen, 13-year-old Kenley's journey speaks volumes about overcoming adversity.

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Photography Misty Miotto Photography | Hair/MU: Danica Miotto Dress: Ann Marie's Boutique
I just didn't understand why Kenley was having such a hard time with her sight words.

Kenley's journey began with the discovery of her dyslexia at the age of six. During her kindergarten year, her mum, Jennifer McKenna, diligently worked with Kenley every night to help her practice her weekly list of sight words assigned by her public school teacher. However, Kenley struggled immensely with recalling the sight words despite their efforts. "We reviewed her sight words on flashcards every single night. To say it was a struggle is an understatement. Every night, there were tears, yelling, frustration, anger, desperation, and exhaustion. Kenley literally couldn't recall the sight word I had just held up in front of her face and only turned over 3 seconds before I showed it to her again. I just didn't understand why Kenley was having such a hard time with her sight words," shares Jennifer.

Towards the end of kindergarten, Jennifer decided to visit Kenley's class on her birthday for a special celebration. Little did she know, this seemingly ordinary gesture would uncover a profound realization about Kenley's struggles throughout the year. Jennifer recalls, "There was a giant picture of a coconut tree on the classroom wall. Each student's name was written on a paper coconut, which travelled up the tree as the child learned their sight words. My eyes filled up with tears when I saw Kenley's poor little coconut sitting alone at the bottom of the tree. I knew that learning to read was a struggle for Kenley, but seeing her fall so behind in comparison to her peers made me realize that something was wrong."

I knew that learning to read was a struggle for Kenley, but seeing her fall so behind in comparison to her peers made me realize that something was wrong.

Jennifer and her husband wasted no time in seeking help for their daughter. They arranged for Kenley to undergo a private screening for all potential learning disorders, knowing that waiting through the public school system's timeline was simply not an option for their little girl. At just six years old, Kenley received a diagnosis that explained the challenges she had been facing: dyslexia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and various vision issues. Despite these hurdles, the doctor also uncovered something remarkable: Kenley's high IQ and gifted status, making her what is known as "twice exceptional." This revelation explained why their child struggled with basic reading skills despite her intelligence.

Jennifer experienced a whirlwind of emotions upon receiving the diagnosis. Relief washed over her as she finally had answers to Kenley's struggles with reading. Yet, this relief was coupled with devastation upon realizing that something was "wrong" with her daughter. Jennifer found herself in uncharted territory, knowing little about dyslexia and feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of helping Kenley navigate this challenge. "I didn't know anyone with dyslexia and had no idea how to deal with it or how to try to "fix" it. I was completely overwhelmed. I cried a lot. I did a lot of research online and bought every book I could find on the topic. My husband is far more laid back than I am. He encouraged me to find the proper experts in the area to help her, but ultimately, I think he was surprised that I wasn't just overreacting and that what my intuition was telling me was true."

I was relieved to finally have answers to why she was struggling to read, but I was also devastated to learn that something was ‘wrong’ with her.

Despite having a comprehensive diagnostic assessment and a list of 48 recommended accommodations, Jennifer encountered unexpected resistance from Kenley's new 1st-grade teachers when she approached them for support. Initially optimistic about Kenley starting the year on the right foot with the promised accommodations, Jennifer soon realized her hopes were misplaced. "I was excited for her to start the year off on the right foot and was confident the accommodations she was entitled to would make all the difference in her academic progress. Her teachers even reassured me that they were very familiar with providing accommodations for students and that there would be no problem providing Kenley with her best learning environment even without obtaining a formal IEP or 504 plan. It only took 3 weeks for me to realize that I was being overly optimistic. Kenley was consistently receiving "yellow" or warnings for not paying attention in class or not completing her work on time. (These were the exact behaviours caused by her ADHD and dyslexia). It was clear that Kenley simply did not fit into the ‘box’ of the standard public school student. We immediately withdrew Kenley from the public school and enrolled her in a nearby private school."

Transitioning Kenley to a private school proved pivotal as the smaller class sizes and increased accountability created a conducive environment where she thrived. Additionally, Kenley attended intensive Orton Gillingham reading remediation outside of school and vision therapy to help with her vision issues, gradually unlocking the world of reading for her. Jennifer recalls that "things weren't exactly smooth sailing" when Kenley started her reading remediation sessions. Initially, Kenley struggled to grasp the need to complete extra homework and assigned tasks. However, as time passed, Kenley's relationship with Dr. Spelman, her therapist, evolved into something special. "Over time, Kenley developed a special bond with "Dr. Spelman." The light bulb went on, and she realized that all that extra work was why she was now able to read. She was finally learning how to read! But this time, there were no sight words and NO COCONUTS! Instead, she was being taught to decode the words using the Orton Gillingham method. It changed our lives. Immediately, homework got easier, the tears stopped, and we were finally communicating."

The light bulb went on, and she realized that all that extra work was why she was now able to read.
She has lots of layers and is a creative thinker.

Today, Kenley is an 8th-grade student at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Florida, USA, where she benefits from the Edison Program, a specialized initiative designed to offer additional support tailored to Kenley's requirements. This program ensures that Kenley doesn't fall behind in her studies and focuses on fostering strong executive functioning skills essential for her academic success. Reflecting on Kenley's experience, Jennifer shares, "Kenley does a tremendous job "masking" her dyslexia. She is a very intelligent young lady and a born leader. She is a master at making sure everyone feels included and is often the mediator when conflict arises. These qualities make her a good friend and an excellent helper in the classroom. She is fiercely independent, but that means that she often needs to be encouraged to ask for help when she doesn't understand something. If she fails to turn in an assignment, it is usually because she didn't understand its elements and rather than ask for clarification, she just ignores it. Kenley is very literal and does best with single-step instructions, and as is common with most dyslexics, spelling is a struggle for her. Overall, Kenley is a pleasure to be around. She has lots of layers and is a creative thinker. I am often amazed by the things she says and does."

Kenley's diverse interests and activities reflect her vibrant personality and passion for making a difference. She is extremely fond of animals and was even voted "Most Likely to Become a Zookeeper" by her friends. Actively involved in volunteering at Dexter's Kitties, a local cat rescue, Kenley dedicates her time preparing kittens for adoption as she pursues her dream of becoming an Animal Rescuer and Habitat Preservationist. She's already set on studying Animal Sciences at the University of Florida to make her dream come true. Despite her young age, Kenley's dedication to service has earned her the prestigious Presidential Gold Volunteer Service Award for contributing over 299 hours of service. Additionally, she served as a Page in the Florida House of Representatives. She also won 1st Place in the Florida Women's History Essay Contest, a significant accomplishment considering her dyslexia.

In the kitchen, Kenley's culinary skills truly stand out. Jennifer describes her as a natural in the kitchen who has a particular fondness for creating delicious macaroons and blending the perfect smoothies. Beyond her love for animals and baking, Kenley's biggest thrill comes from exploring new places. Last summer, Kenley and her inseparable best friend Ava, who had been by her side since second grade, went on an epic three-week adventure through Europe.

Kenley's talents also extend to the athletic arena, where she shines as a national champion baton twirler. Her skills were recognized internationally as she represented Team USA at the 2023 World Baton Twirling Championship, contributing to their impressive silver medal win.

Last year, Kenley's journey took an exciting turn when she set her sights on competing in Miss Jacksonville's Teen pageant. Upon researching the entry requirements, she realized that she needed to formalize her commitment to a particular cause. The Miss America Opportunity requires that each contestant champion a particular community service initiative and promote this cause as their personal platform throughout the year. With Jennifer's help, Kenley explored various charitable organizations, ranging from animal habitat restoration to equal rights. However, her personal journey with dyslexia continually resonated with her. Kenley believed that by sharing her story, she could inspire and empower other children facing similar challenges.

She was confident that by sharing her personal story, she could empower other kids with the same struggle.

Recognizing the potential synergy between Kenley's personal journey and the mission of the RCF, Jennifer encouraged Kenley to connect with Jen Knopf, the founder of RCF. "I initially met Jen Knopf because we lived in the same small area of Orlando, our children attended the same pre-school, and our husbands were in the same line of work. We were Facebook friends but didn't really see each other outside of the carpool line or school functions. At some point, I read that Jen was starting a Foundation in honour of her son, Reed, and his battle with dyslexia. After Kenley was diagnosed, I always read whatever Jen posted on her page and noticed that the Foundation was growing and doing more in the community to help kids with dyslexia. She invited my husband and me to some of their events, and I was blown away by the impact the Reed Charitable Foundation was making in the community. So, I suggested that Kenley reach out to Jen at RCF to see if she could explore ways to become involved with the charity. Jen responded immediately, and the relationship grew from there," shares Jennifer.

When I was younger, I was embarrassed that I had dyslexia.

As a student ambassador for the RCF, Kenley found inspiration to create a colouring book titled D is for Dyslexia. Reflecting on her own experiences with dyslexia, Kenley shares, "When I was younger, I was embarrassed that I had dyslexia. I didn't really understand why I struggled with so many things besides just learning how to read. I had a lot of emotions and feelings that were hard to explain, and I didn't understand that most of those feelings and frustrations were caused by the dyslexia. So, I wanted to tell other children with dyslexia that they shouldn't be ashamed of making mistakes or not being able to do certain things and that their dyslexia can affect them and their learning in ways that they might not already understand."

From concept to creation, Kenley carefully designed the colouring book to cater to children and families who may be struggling after a recent dyslexia diagnosis. "She knew immediately that she wanted to design a colouring book and not just a book for reading. Reading books can be challenging for dyslexics, so a colouring book seemed like the perfect tool. Kenley then decided she wanted to design the book for not just young children but for the people who love them, too. This is why each page includes a sentence at the bottom to explain the illustration and why it was included. Then she brainstormed each letter of the alphabet for a word that would suit the definition of what she wanted to say and used a familiar program that she uses at school, Canva, to design the actual pages. From there, I proofread her pages for her and sent it off to a local printer. All proceeds collected from the sale of the colouring book will be donated to fund teacher training through RCF," shares Jennifer.


The book is available as a downloadable resource on the RCF website. Kenley requests that a donation of $5 be given to the RCF for each book for those who can afford to donate.

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Late last year, with her sights set on the Miss Jacksonville's Teen title, Kenley enthusiastically dove into her preparations with unwavering determination. This involved more than just practising her talent; Kenley meticulously tried on various evening gowns, selecting colours and styles that accentuated her best features. Collaborating closely with her baton twirling coaches, she choreographed a new solo routine, ensuring it perfectly complemented her chosen music, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Kenley's dedication extended beyond the stage. Recognizing the importance of the interview segment, she devoted significant time to honing her communication skills. Weekly sessions with Lori, her mother's close friend and an executive interview consultant, proved invaluable in refining her ability to share her story authentically and confidently. Over the next few months, Kenley cultivated the confidence and poise needed to step onto the competition stage, fully prepared to showcase her talents and personality with grace and charisma, ultimately securing the title of Miss Jacksonville's Teen 2024.

When I came back to school on Monday morning, they all asked me if I had won. It felt really good to tell them 'Yes!'"

Kenley recalls that her friends and teachers were very happy for her and eager to see the videos from the pageant. "I had told my friends before the competition that I was getting ready for a big pageant, and they were very excited for me. When I came back to school on Monday morning, they all asked me if I had won. It felt really good to tell them 'Yes!'"

As Kenley gears up for the upcoming Miss Florida's Teen competition, she continues to dedicate herself to perfecting her baton twirling solo, pushing herself to increase her flexibility and refine her technique while also honing her interview skills. Having already assumed the role of Miss Jacksonville's Teen, Kenley has embraced numerous opportunities to engage with her community and gain invaluable life experience. "As Miss Jacksonville's Teen, she has already made several appearances at special events and in the media. These opportunities, along with the events that she champions for the RCF, give her invaluable life experience, and allow her to make an impact in her community," shares Jennifer.

Having to face adversity has taught her a tremendous amount of grit and determination.

Kenley's journey, shaped by her resilience and determination in the face of dyslexia, continues to influence her perspective on success and competition as she readies herself for the forthcoming pageant. Jennifer observes that Kenley's dyslexia fuels her creativity and enables her to perceive the world uniquely. Through years of hard work and therapy, Kenley has embraced her potential and recognizes the positive impact she can make. Jennifer shares, "Kenley is no longer blind to her own potential and finally sees the good she can do in the world. Her desire to help other dyslexics is incredibly inspiring. She has had to work twice as hard as her peers to learn new things, especially in the early years of dealing with her dyslexia. But having to face adversity has taught her a tremendous amount of grit and determination. She knows what she wants, and she doesn't give up easily. She is a consistent competitor who is not easily rattled but keeps going even if something goes wrong. For example, at Miss Jacksonville's Teen, Kenley started her baton twirling routine and dropped the very first toss she threw. But instead of getting upset or reacting negatively, Kenley calmly walked over, picked the baton back up, and kept twirling. She caught every other toss after that, and the crowd went wild when she finished. I definitely believe her battle with dyslexia has taught her to not sweat the small stuff. If you struggle at first, just pick back up and keep going because you will eventually achieve success."

Kenley McKenna

Kenley McKenna

Kenley McKenna
Jennifer McKenna

Extracts from Dystinct Magazine

Extracts from Dystinct Magazine

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Dystinct Journey

Zahra Nawaz Twitter

Founder of Dystinct


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