7 million books and counting: One man’s fight for literacy among … – Chicago Tribune
It’s a Tuesday morning at Rowe Elementary, a charter school on the city’s North Side, and in Ms. Voigts’ third-grade class, the students are wide-eyed, clinging to the edges of their desks to still themselves. Each kid steps to the front and gets a shiny white plastic bag, then wades back into a moment that builds into a kind of feverish, break-the-pinata pandemonium. The bags are filled with books, not candy, but in an instant they are pulled out, spread across desks, passed with wonder from hand to hand. Kids are no longer using indoor voices: “Ooh, ‘STAR WARS’ — I love it!” “What did you get?” “I’ll trade you …”
Hanging back in the corner near the door is Brian Floriani, a tall, slightly sheepish guy in a baseball cap who is, almost single-handedly, responsible for the uproar. The charity he founded in his North Shore garage seven years ago, Bernie’s Book Bank, has now distributed more than 7 million books, and counting, to kids in the Chicago area.
The plan? To deliver 12 books per year, every year to every at-risk child from birth through sixth grade, throughout Chicagoland. Those kids are at Women, Infants and Children (WIC) centers and at schools like Rowe, where the percentage of children eligible for free or reduced lunch hovers at around 80 percent.
The numbers represent significant progress in an effort to make a dent in the daunting issue of literacy in at-risk communities, where book ownership boils down to stats like these: In a 2006 study published in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research, middle-income neighborhoods surveyed showed an average of 13 books per child. Low-income communities had approximately 300 children per one book. For Floriani, putting books into kids’ hands isn’t just a battle to change those numbers: It’s a personal quest.
In 2005, four years before he founded Bernie’s Book Bank, Floriani’s life was on a different course. He worked as a golf pro, teaching for Golf Digest magazine. Some days, going to work meant hopping on a private plane, stepping onto a pristine green; the satisfying thwack of a well-hit ball racing gravity down a long fairway.
Then Bernie Floriani Sr., Brian’s father, died in his sleep at age 58. The heart attack that took him was sudden, a graceful exit that left his family stunned. Brian eulogized both his dad and his maternal grandmother, who died the same day, and walked away from the funeral into a dark tunnel of self-doubt.
“When my father died,” he says, “I thought, ‘Will anybody have anything good to say about me when I’m gone? And will it be true?’ And then: ‘Will it matter?'”
His dad’s story set a high standard — the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Bernie Sr. was a voracious reader and star basketball player who became a respected educator, focusing on literacy.
“My grandfather worked in the coal mine for 51 years, and my father didn’t have running water until college,” Floriani says. “I knew where I came from and what’s possible.
“I remember my dad telling me ‘You can do anything.’ And that was no b.s. It was real. I believed him. And believing is half the battle — that and grit.”
In the wake of his dad’s death, he realized he wanted to be of service to people. Inspired by his dad’s dedication to literacy, Floriani, by then married with a child on the way, decided to become a teacher, and in 2008 took a job as a reading paraprofessional at Shiloh Park Elementary in Zion, as a way to get a foot in the door.
“The same passion you see now,” says Keely Roberts, superintendent of schools for Zion School District 6, who was then principal at Shiloh Park, “that was already there at his job interview. I often wonder if people think it’s a pitch, but it’s all genuine.”
To make ends meet, Floriani says, “I had three jobs, and one of them was getting up at 3 a.m. and cleaning offices. For 2 1/2 years, every morning I’d clean toilets, vacuum every once in a while. Sometimes I’d think about that private jet and how work used to be just teeing it up. But I felt like I had purpose, like I was living something special. I was on a journey, and the theme music had changed.”
Very quickly, he began to perceive needs that weren’t being met in his students. “The children were hungry to become readers,” he says. “But they couldn’t even take a book out from the library because there were too few books, books were too precious.” He felt he had been given a front-row seat at the start of a tragic cycle. “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, but we don’t give them what they need to do it.”
“I think he realized really quickly that it was bigger than our school,” says Roberts, “a huge, huge problem.”
In fact, studies show 85 percent of kids who wind up in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. When those kids are imprisoned, Floriani says, “who we’re really holding accountable is not a 19- or 20-year-old, it’s the 3- or 4-year-old who didn’t get what he needed to have a good start.”
Floriani’s mind kept coming back to his dad, the coal miner’s child who “literally read his way out of that life,” he says.
“Brian has always seen the face of his father in these kids,” says Barrett Davie, InStadium founder and chairman of the board of directors at Bernie’s Book Bank.
“I would come to Keely and say, ‘We gotta do something about this,'” Floriani says.
The idea, when it came, seemed almost infuriatingly simple: “I knew there were tons of books out there,” Floriani says. “All those books in every home that your kids aren’t reading anymore because they grew out of them. The supply has got to outweigh the demand; we just need a way to connect the books with the kids who need them.” All he needed, Floriani decided, was to build a distribution system.
“So many people have great ideas,” Roberts says, “so many people see a need — and so few people find a way to make the good stuff happen.”
But Floriani, who had already given up life on the golf course for cleaning bathrooms and teaching kids to read, was ready to take action. In 2009, he began putting up signs in Starbucks, asking for used children’s books to be donated. Someone saw one of those signs and tipped him off to a shipment of overstock books that were headed for the dumpster.