Friday, August 5, 2016

Librarian makes a compelling argument for male volunteer readers

From left: Librarian Inger O. Upchurch, Roland Wilks, Rochelle Stevens, Herman
Adair, Wiley Henry and Steven's nephew, Martin Alex Truitt. (Photo by Andre Mitchell)
Inger O. Upchurch is a stickler for reading – which is not surprising since she manages both the Crenshaw Library at 531 Vance Ave. and the Gaston Park Library at 1040 S. Third St. Her late mother, Aline M. Upchurch, once said: “Reading is a wonderful gift to give to a child!”
Upchurch took her mother’s words to heart, which was literally broken after she encountered a young man on the way to the corner store one day who couldn’t read. Not in this day and time, she thought.
 “He said, ‘Are you the library lady?’ He had a piece of paper and asked if I would read it to him,” Upchurch recalls. “The piece of paper said he had a court date in two weeks and to contact his attorney. I took my pen and circled the number for him to call.”
The message was very serious, said Upchurch, but the young man in his 20s didn’t know how severe the problem was and that he was possibly looking at jail time. “I was upset and angry that this young man couldn’t read,” she said. “He didn’t have a future.”
Upchurch contacted Charles “Mr. Chuck” Scruggs, who urged her to do something about the anger she was feeling for the illiterate man. So she wrote an outline for a mentoring program for toddlers and preschoolers called “Real Men Read.” 
“The mentors had to be African-American men,” said Upchurch, “because there weren’t many positive male role models for African-American children.”
Six volunteer readers answered the call of duty when Real Men Read launched in 2007: Herman Adair, Jake Allen, Archie Willis, Vince Higgins, Jamie Griffin and Reginald Milton. Since then, dozens of volunteers have read a plethora of books year-round to nearly 11,000 toddlers and preschoolers at 10 daycare centers. This year alone, the volunteers read to 1,100 toddlers and preschoolers.
On May 20, the volunteer readers celebrated the success of Real Men Read at their annual luncheon at the library. Explore Memphis, a summer reading program for children and enrichment opportunities for adults, also recognized the volunteers at its finale on July 31.
This year, Explore Memphis celebrated sports, health, and fitness. Rochelle Stevens, an Olympic gold and silver medalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, shared her story about her drive to success in track and field.
Stevens also touted her book, “Travel the World by Foot,” and mingled with the audience. Steven, who also volunteers at the library, posed for photos with Real Men Read volunteers at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
Roland Wilks, a retired engineer and substitute teacher, said he has so much fun reading to the toddlers and preschoolers.
“I’ve always been a volunteer,” said Wilks, who first read an article in the paper about Upchurch and what she was doing in the community. So he decided he’d volunteer for the Real Men Read program. “She made such a compelling argument. So I left my number and email.”
Reading to the kids, he said, has changed his life. “I’ve been reading for about five years and I’ve volunteered for other organizations for 15 to 20 years.”
“I want the best for my kids,” said Upchurch, thinking back to the man who motivated her to do something about illiteracy. “I don’t want lip service. I want action. I want African-American men to step up.”
Adair, the former deputy director of maintenance for the city of Memphis Public Works Division, was one of the first to step up. He and Upchurch were having Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house when she asked him to become a volunteer reader.
“I couldn’t refuse,” he said. “I want to say I made a contribution. I encouraged someone.”

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