Connections-Deb and Kristen Gawrys-GN 19

Debra Gawrys, director of Connections Learning Center, and her daughter, Kristen, enjoy a moment at the center. Last year, Kristen joined the family business that her mother started in 2004. When Kristen was in grade school, she struggled to read; then Debra, a school teacher at the time, discovered innovative teaching methods like the Wilson Reading Program, which she has used to help hundreds of other students. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Kristen now teaches students who struggled like she did. For more information about Connections Learning Center or a free consultation, call (773) 238-4526 or visit

A red apple is frequently associated with images of teachers, and in the case of Connections Learning Center, it also symbolizes the bond between a mother and daughter.

“Apples don’t fall far from the tree” might be an old saying, but it now has new meaning for Debra Gawrys, director of Connections Learning Center, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

Last year, her daughter, Kristen, 32, joined the business that Debra started 15 years ago. Kristen is on the staff of 11 that teaches students to become better learners, so students can reach their true potential.

In joining the family business, Kristen and Connections Learning Center have come full circle because Kristen was a motivating factor in Debra’s business venture.

When Kristen was in elementary school, she struggled to read, bringing on issues of self-confidence. Debra was a teacher at the time, and in trying to help Kristen overcome her difficulties in school, Debra sought new and innovative methods of teaching.

Not only did those teaching methods turn Kristen into an academic achiever, Debra went on to use them to help hundreds of others students who once lived what Kristen went through.

“I am the catalyst for how Connections got started,” Kristen said. “In third grade, I was a total non-reader—couldn’t even read the word ‘the.’”

“My mother, who had her master’s in special education, was trying everything, and nothing worked until she learned about dyslexia and found the Wilson Reading Program.”

Now with a bachelor’s degree from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., Kristen, a graduate of Marian Catholic High School, loves to read, enjoying two to three books a month.

Kristin said dyslexia wasn’t a term used much during her days in grade school; students were labeled “learning disabled,” offering little information about the disability.

“I just thought I was stupid before finding out I was dyslexic,” Kristen said. “Once my mother started using the Wilson Reading Program to teach me, I started learning to read right away.”

Dealing with a learning disability often requires students to spend additional time completing assignments, and it creates other issues.

“I remember how it felt to be teased by other kids when I struggled,” Kristen said. “Kids would call me ‘stupid.’ It was hurtful, was embarrassing, and I struggled not to believe they were right about me.”

In her earlier school years, Kristen had an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is provided for students who need additional resources in their studies. Her desire to succeed often led to confusion about the reasons for her situation.

“It was always important to me to prove that I am ‘smart’ and I can succeed in the classroom,” said Kristen. “I can still remember how confused and tired my brain felt everyday, but I just kept pushing because I wanted to be smart.

“I worked so hard that, by the time I reached sixth grade, I didn’t need an IEP; but I still needed help with homework, and it still took me hours to get it done. But, not needing an IEP was huge, and I am still proud that I got so far in such a short amount of time.”

Kristen now understands that not all students learn in a way prescribed by their school district or by traditional tutors.

“I wish that I had some of the programs back then that we now use at Connections,” she said. “Had I been able to go through our cognitive brain training, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard in school.”

Connections Learning Center, 2744 W. 111th St., uses the most up-to-date and successful teaching methods.

“We offer alternative educational therapies. We want to find the root cause or the reason that a perfectly bright student isn’t doing well,” Debra said. “Once the root cause is found, we can suggest the right program, or combination of programs, so the problem is fixed.”

Instead of traditional tutoring methods, Debra uses cognitive educational therapy, which is called “brain training.”

Cognitive brain training is all about neuroplasticity, a term referring to the fact that the brain can change. Experts now know that educators can increase a student’s cognitive abilities by creating new brain paths for efficient learning.

Many of its students, Kristen said, come there with feelings similar to those she experienced as a struggling student. She develops a connection with her students because she has been there.

“They feel like failures,” she said. “They have been tested to death and don’t even want to try. They think, ‘Why would this work?’

“I share my story with each of them and that I understand how they feel. Most start to trust and begin to try after that.”

The results, she said, soon follow.

“Once they see small successes, their confidence begins to build, and then they start to learn faster.”

As she continues her career, Kristen is considering various areas of study for her master’s degree and eventually wants to earn a doctorate. Obviously, this young educator is motivated by her mother’s resume.

Debra, a Beverly resident, has a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in learning disabilities from St. Xavier University. She taught in elementary school and was also a learning disabilities resource teacher. She also served on the board for the Illinois chapter of the International Dyslexia Association.

Connections Learning Center also provides test preparation for the ACT/SAT, private school and selective enrollment, college placement exams, the GRE and the GED.

With Kristen on board at Connections Learning Center, Debra is looking forward to enjoying more time with family and watching her daughter grow their family business.

“I really enjoy helping kids like me become successful learners,” Kristen said. “I have found my calling!”

For more information about Connections Learning Center or a free consultation, call (773) 238-4526 or visit