Jordan Toma, grew up in New Jersey and suffered 18 years of his life from learning disabilities that he let define in his life in school.
It caused him to lack confidence, feel helpless and made him unable to know his self-worth. He didn’t want to attend school, feeling he was not good enough. He said he always felt lost and helpless in class.
“I struggled with listening, reading, paying attention, being present, and trying to understand why I couldn’t pick things up like everyone else did,” Toma said. “I remember sitting in class and telling myself ‘I am going to really try hard to understand everything and be a normal student,’ but I just couldn’t grasp the material.
“The struggle was real, and it led to required special lessons, which was an Individual Education program. (But) the special lessons led to other students and so-called friends calling me dumb and I was teased. I also allowed this to control me throughout High School.”
Toma brought his message to Fort Lupton High School Sept. 6 to help students with the same struggles. Toma learned to get past his struggles and find his strengths as time passed, and he wears them now like a badge of honor.
“I want everyone to know just how hard it was, and how I became the person I am today at 33 years because of it,” Toma said.
It was a welcome message.
“This is a good story for our kids to hear, about a young man who struggled with school yet overcame that. He understood that he needed help from other people, but then he had to intrinsically find it himself,” said Fort Lupton High School Principal Doug Gordon. “It’s an incredible story and our kids need to hear it and I hope they take away a good message from Jordan.”
After Toma graduated from high school in 2008, he enrolled in a Centenary University program called “STEP Ahead,” an instensive four-week program designed to enhance the development of a student’s self-advocacy, independence, interpersonal and academic skills.
“I moved into the Centenary University dorm that summer, filled with fear and anxiety. I went into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror and promised I would change my life struggles that dominated me up to this point,” Toma said.
He got through college, which was the hardest thing ever for him.
“I thought, if I could make it through college, I could do anything,” Toma said. “I knew that I was going to do something. I got through school working hard to figure it out and maybe I wouldn’t get it right away.”
He started working immediately upon graduation as a business advisor, but was still trying to figure out what was next. Toma said he worked hard at his first job and was successful but thought of the many kids who have struggled in school like he did.
“They are doubting themselves to never push past that barrier of getting through it to figure out who they were and never got to that moment, where they could do anything,” Toma said. “I decided to help these kids get through a tough part of their life.”
He took his passion into the schools as a youth motivational speaker to reach kids.
“The only way I could do it was to share my personal story and message at schools, to parents, and through social media,” Toma said.
Toma began reaching out to the youth working online, trying to speak at schools for free, and getting in front of kids was a start.
“I went back to a summer program that changed my life and wanted to get to kids at that moment- they can do it, I got through it. I know every kid deserves to get to that moment,” Toma said.
Toma started his program in 2017 called “I’m just a kid with an IEP.” By 2020, news spread about Toma, and he was on NBC’s Today Show and has continued to go to the schools.
Beyond the IEP
When Toma came to Fort Lupton High School, he told the kids in the gymnasium of his personal story of learning disabilities and being in the IEP program. He talked about overcoming their struggles by working hard and showing up for school. He told the students he missed a lot of school because of struggles.
But you have to show up.
“If you don’t show up for school, you can’t overcome your struggles; you need to work hard,” Toma said.
Toma quizzed the Fort Lupton students about their struggles, offering them various gifts – hats, shirts, and books.
He asked if they’d ever been called upon to stand up and read in front of the class, only to come away embarrassed because they couldn’t get the words right. Many kids raised their hands.
He asked them if they knew why kids bully. They answered that it makes them feel better and he agreed. It’s because of problems in their life, he said.
Toma asked them to identify the feeling when their heart is beating fast, their stomach feels full of butterflies and they can’t breathe. The kids hollered back, “Anxiety!”
Anxiety grows roots in your life and sometimes leaves you feeling that you can’t make it out, he said. He said he has struggled his whole life with anxiety.
Toma said he depends on the students themselves to keep him moving forward, After every speaking event, Toma said the students come up to him, give feedback, and send him messages, telling him he changed his life and saw their struggles and future.
“I tell them you need to have hope because it’s hard, but if you have hope, you can keep going and showing up for school- it’s life-changing,” Toma said.
When I heard that, Toma said it gave him the energy to continue his work.
“I’ll be honest, traveling to each engagement is tiring, hopping on planes and driving hours to a school to speak and then to another school. It takes a lot of energy,” Toma said.
“I keep in the back of my mind you never know who’s in the crowd. It makes me feel good they’re listening, they can hear my message, it feels good.”