Reading Center Alumnus Donn Sorensen shares his story of struggle to success

Reading Center alumnus Donn Sorensen is a healthcare executive, philanthropist, author, public speaker and Reading Center alumnus.  He was visiting his parents in Rochester over Father’s Day and agreed to share his story of struggle to success with our Advanced Orton-Gillingham Institute trainees this morning.

 It’s abundantly clear that Donn Sorensen is a very bright, intelligent and driven person, so how can it be that an MBA and Executive of a major health system doesn’t email?  Very simply, he is very dyslexic.  He has developed ways of communicating that work more fluidly for him than resorting to the written word.  And it works for him.

Everyone who reports to me knows that if they want to contact me, they need to call.  It’s a joke at Mercy that I don’t read emails,” said Donn.

Growing up in Rochester with Dyslexia.   In the late 1960’s, Mary and Eugene Sorensen were worried about their son Donn’s extreme difficulty learning to read.  They held him back in 1st grade, thinking that maybe he was just a “late bloomer.”  Holding him back didn’t help.

School was a “horrible experience” for Donn.  “The rest of the class moved farther along, but my very small group was held back,” recalled Donn.  “You know why you are in that small group. I began to internalize that I wasn’t as smart,” and eventually, his teacher just tried to keep him busy by playing with clay. 

When Donn was in 3rd grade, Mary and Eugene brought Donn for testing at The Reading Center.  He then tutored with long-time Reading Center tutor, Elaine Bauman from 4th grade to 8th grade. 

“Tutoring really helped,” Donn said, but he would have preferred not needing to come.  He left school during the day to go to his tutoring lessons.  That set him apart.  “I’d tell my classmates that I was skipping class,” rather than tell them the truth.

Utilizing his strengths at an early age. Donn was an ambitious child in ways that set him apart from his peers.  When still a boy, he started his own lawn care business and he drummed up enough accounts that he hired a friend (his first employee!) to help him do the work.  In high school, Donn contacted the head of IBM and went in to talk to him.  “I was already looking for nontraditional ways to move my life forward.”  Networking with people who count is a way that he seemed to intuit.

“I only know struggle.  I tell my colleagues, ‘you can’t outwork me.  I will do the hard, back-breaking work.’  I’ll figure out alternative ways to get things done.”  And his success shows it.

Donn’s success wasn’t the straight A sort of success.  He graduated from high school, college and graduate school, but school was always difficult.   “During my first year at Luther, my grades were not very good and they put me on ‘double secret academic probation,’” he joked.   But the more his studies narrowed on areas that interested him, the better he did.  And there is no denying that Donn experienced his greatest successes in his career.

Donn thanks his parents and The Reading Center.  School can feel very discouraging, especially for students who go undiagnosed, who don’t know why they struggle and who never receive the help that they need.

“If it wasn’t for The Reading Center and my parents, I would not be where I am today.  In fact, I probably would have gone down a very bad road,” Donn reflected.  Tutoring gave him the resources he needed in order to succeed in school, and it reinforced his tenacity. 

When asked what he would tell parents whose children were struggling to learn reading, he says, “Get intervention quickly.  Give them a safe and encouraging environment at home.”  For young people, Donn feels it’s important for them to know that, “school doesn’t last forever.  It’s not the most important part of your life.”

In addition, Donn got involved in activities where he could excel.  “Sports helped me by putting me in with the ‘right’ group,” by which he means the students who are engaged in school and are making positive choices for themselves.  Donn became an accomplished runner, going to the State Championship Meet in his senior year of high school.

Donn currently serves as executive vice president of operations for the health ministry and as regional president of Mercy’s West Communities –outside of St. Louis, Missouri.  

Donn’s prior roles include regional president of Mercy’s East region, vice president/COO of Mercy Clinic in the east Missouri region and various leadership roles supporting Mercy’s physician organization in southwest Missouri. Prior to Mercy, he was with Premier Practice Management (a national practice operations organization), several specialty and multi-specialty groups in Nashville, Tennessee, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

 Donn earned his undergraduate degree from Luther College and a master’s in business administration from Missouri State University and serves as board chair for the American Medical Group Association.