Joanne Pierson had just gotten done teaching a fitness class when Agnes Reading, a class participant, approached her and suggested she join the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor.
“I’m like, ‘Rotary? What are you talking about, Agnes?” Pierson said.
After some initial hesitation, she joined the club.
That was 18 years ago, and despite a career that has seen her mentor and teach youth, and combat dyslexia for decades, she calls being involved with the club a pinnacle experience.
“It has been one of the single-most impactful things in my life,” she said.
Pierson serves as the project manager for DyslexiaHelp, a donor-funded, web-based information and resource center through the School of Education. In addition to monitoring and approving all content on the website, she answers every inquiry submitted through it.
That’s a tall task for a website with worldwide reach, but she manages that and her private practice, the Literacy, Language, and Learning Institute, co-founded with fellow SOE alumna Lauren Katz, with free time to spare.
That’s where the Rotary Club comes in. She has volunteered countless hours for the largest Rotary Club in the state and is in her past-president year after serving a year as president-elect and another as president. Her presidency term of July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, coincided with the heart of the worldwide pandemic.
“My entire year was on Zoom, but I have the personality to be able to do that and drive that,” she said. “It was a challenge, regardless I loved the year. Would I rather have been at the podium in the Anderson Room? Yes, but you do what you do when that kind of stuff happens. Make the best of it, and that’s what we did.
“I actually told the Rotarians my first meeting, ‘When life gives you lemons, make limoncello.’”
During her tenure as president, one of the highlights was launching an anti-racism committee, which in September will help conduct the Taking Action for Peace Conference in the Michigan League.
With the annual golf and tennis fundraiser sidelined because of COVID-19, the club turned to an online auction and Italian wine night in partnership with Paesano’s Restaurant.
Pierson said longtime Rotarian and U-M alumnus and staff member Al Storey, who died this year at the age of 100, would say, “We always get the right leader for the time for the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor.”
“My fellow Rotarians would say, ‘She was the one,’” Pierson said.
She was involved with the Centennial Playground Project at Gallup Park in 2016 to commemorate the club’s 100-year anniversary.
“It’s accessible, it’s fantastic and it’s always packed,” she said of the playground.
Even when Pierson was new to the club in 2004, she was making a difference. She was one of the first co-chairs of the committee that supported the U-M Rotaract Club when it launched that year. The student club, which works closely with the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, remains viable and active today.
While many of the names and faces of the club since Pierson started have changed, one troubling thing has remained constant: the mean age of the membership.
“When I started, I was 48, and I’m 65 now. I’m the mean age right now,” she said. “We haven’t done anything to change that, but we’re working on that to make Rotary more relevant to younger generations.”
At DyslexiaHelp, Pierson works to not only connect families affected by dyslexia with resources but to educate the public about some of the myths surrounding the condition. She first studied speech-language pathology at Western Michigan University and says having a younger sister with a hearing impairment helped drive her into that field.
She received her master’s degree in speech-language pathology from U-M before completing her doctorate with an emphasis in literacy, language and learning disorders, also at U-M.
She worked as associate director of the U-M Center for the Development of Language and Literacy under Holly Craig before they were approached in 2009 by a donor who wanted to establish resources to address dyslexia.
DyslexiaHelp launched in 2010.
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“Dyslexia is a language-based learning disorder. It’s not flipping letters. It’s not a vision disorder,” she said. “It’s a problem in perceiving the sounds of our language, manipulating those sounds, and if you can’t take words apart by sounds in the absence of letters, you can’t begin to map sounds onto letters in order to read and spell.
“These are kids with average or above cognitive abilities who just have this challenge of mapping sounds.”
In her non-Rotary free time, Pierson said she and her husband enjoy traveling — especially to Paris, a destination they hope to visit again now that the pandemic appears under control — and downhill skiing.
“We are late in life learning to downhill ski, and we love it,” she said. “We flew back from Park City, Utah, the Thursday before the governor shut us down in March 2020. We just love to go out west to go downhill skiing.”