Boston Common: Dean Bragonier Swims Around Martha's Vineyard to Help Kids With Dyslexia

Growing up with dyslexia, Dean Bragonier—seen here at his home in Cambridge—learned how to keep his head well above water, and now he’s teaching his strategies to others. Photo by Ken Richards

Growing up with dyslexia, Dean Bragonier—seen here at his home in Cambridge—learned how to keep his head well above water, and now he’s teaching his strategies to others. Photo by Ken Richards

Dean Bragonier Swims Around Martha's Vineyard to Help Kids With Dyslexia

Martha’s Vineyard’s Dean Bragonier takes on sharks and rough seas in his quest to swim around the island to raise money for students with dyslexia.

When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” Dean Bragonier is just as straightforward. On July 11, he’ll suit up in his Speedo, dive into the chilly waters off Martha’s Vineyard, and start to swim. And swim and swim and swim. In an effort to raise money for NoticeAbility, the nonprofit organization he founded to serve children with dyslexia, Bragonier plans to become the first person to swim around the island. It’s a 50-mile route through shark-inhabited waters that should take the 42-year-old just over a month.

The idea occurred to him last summer when a friend who relishes extreme sports invited him on a two-mile swim between the island’s East and West Chops. “That one [stretch] is not Herculean, so I thought, Let’s push the envelope,” Bragonier says. “You have to do the whole thing if you’re going to do it.” Mallory would be proud.

Tall and lean with leading-man looks, Bragonier was to the water born. Raised in Manhattan by a journalist father and a child psychologist mother, he spent his first three years on a houseboat docked at the 79th Street Boat Basin. “They put me in a harness with a dog leash attached to the mast so I wouldn’t go overboard,” he says. Weekends were spent sailing off to islands all along the Northeast coast. “I feel more at ease, calm, and grounded when I’m in proximity to water,” says Bragonier, who today splits his time between Cambridge and a family retreat on Martha’s Vineyard.

“To realize that you don’t fit in is a very disturbing emotion.” —Dean Bragonier

His memories of the island are especially fond given that much of his childhood was clouded by the humiliation he felt from an early diagnosis of dyslexia. “That is a very disturbing emotion, to realize that you don’t fit in,” he says. “There is a shame hierarchy where people who are illiterate or have difficulty reading are on the same plateau as people who’ve survived incest.”

Bragonier found ways to keep up with his high school peers, like studying through the night, and was accepted into Bates College, which did not require SAT scores—“my Achilles’ heel,” he says. At age 23, after experiencing the high of graduating from college and the low of watching his father die of cancer, Bragonier moved to Martha’s Vineyard. He studied Buddhism to cope with his grief and bought the Cottage City Bakeshop and Café, which he renamed The Amity in a nod to family friend and Jaws author Peter Benchley. “The inherent limitations that my dyslexia afforded me applied directly to the entrepreneur sphere,” he says. Bragonier’s disability forced him to learn the business and his clientele in ways that others don’t. “When you can’t accumulate knowledge quickly by reading,” he explains, “you begin to rely heavily on observation,” allowing him to anticipate the needs of patrons and staff.

Dean Bragonier working with kids with dyslexia through his nonprofit organization, NoticeAbility.

Dean Bragonier working with kids with dyslexia through his nonprofit organization, NoticeAbility.

It’s a skill set he wants to share with young dyslexics through NoticeAbility, which is developing experiential learning curricula for middle-school students with dyslexia. Rather than traditional classroom lectures, students learn via hands-on practice in disciplines including entrepreneurship, architecture, engineering, and the narrative arts. The lessons are augmented with team-building exercises that increase much-needed self-esteem. Bragonier aims to raise $100,000 to design the first curriculum—by swimming with sharks.

To get in wave-crushing shape, he connected with swim coaches at Bates, who drafted a training routine. And he joined the formidable Cambridge Masters Swim Club. “They kill it in the water,” Bragonier says. “They have speeds I can only dream of, and they’re older than me.” He plans to swim two miles a day and will consult tide charts and “all the saltiest dogs” he knows for advice. That includes Dr. Gregory Skomal, the state’s senior marine fisheries biologist and a noted shark expert. “I asked, ‘Greg, how do I not get eaten?’” Bragonier recalls with a laugh. He was told to avoid dawn, dusk, and seal populations. Skomal also advised him that great white sharks have an aversion to water depths of six feet or less.

Shrugging off the potential danger, Bragonier says, “A dyslexic who goes to school every day has far more courage than someone who gets in the water with sharks.”

-Jared Bowen (22.6.2015) See more at: http://bostoncommon-magazine.com/how-does-dean-bragonier-help-kids-with-dyslexia