The Fight To Save Chicago’s Youth – One Book At A Time

When it comes to child literacy, here’s a statistic that reveals just how much Chicago’s educators are up against: In upper- and middle-class neighborhoods, there are approximately 13 books per child, according to a study published in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research. But in low-income communities like Chicago’s South-side, there are approximately 300 children for every one book.

That’s why it was all the more remarkable, one Tuesday morning, when an unassuming man in a baseball cap strolled into Rowe Elementary, a Chicago charter school, bringing with him bags and bags of books.

The kids reacted as though it were Christmas: jumping, smiling, and giggling as they flipped through the pages.

But this was just one stop of many for Brian Floriani, a former golf pro who later become a literacy advocate to honor his father’s memory. His mission: deliver 12 books per year, every year to every at-risk child from birth through sixth grade in Chicago, through his non-profit Bernie’s Book Bank. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Floriani has already distributed more than 7 million books, and charter school educators in the area are thrilled to see real action rising up from such humble roots in the community.

“I remember my dad telling me ‘You can do anything.’ And that was no b.s.,” Floriani told the Chicago Tribune. “It was real. I believed him. And believing is half that battle – that and grit.”

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Brian Floriani, center, with third grade students at Rowe Elementary. | Photo: Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune

But after his father, who was always an avid reader and literacy advocate during his time as a teacher, died unexpectedly in his sleep, Floriani realized his own life plan – flying around in jets, teaching rich guys how to perfect their golf swing – wasn’t as fulfilling as he thought it would be.

So he decided to become a teacher, and that’s when his eyes were open to the great need amongst Chicago’s youth.

“The children were hungry to become readers,” he told the Tribune. “But they couldn’t even take a book out from the library because there were too few books, books were too precious.”

The way Floriani saw things, this lack of books was just the start of what would inevitably become a tragic cycle. Without even a chance to read a book, what would become of this group of kids? What lives would unfold before them, and what opportunities would vanish along the way?

“I would see hope in their eyes, but I’d leave there thinking ‘You are gonna grow up, and people are gonna complain about you.’ We expect kids to better themselves,” Floriani told the Tribune, “but we don’t give them what they need to do it.”

In much the same way charter school programs are using creative teaching methods to jumpstart education in blighted areas across the nation, Floriani said America has the potential to do the same with reading at an early age. All it takes is thinking outside the box, breaking through old molds and trusting that real positive change can take place.

A simple book can change a life, he says.

All that’s needed after that is grit.

Head over to the Chicago Tribune for the full story.

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.