The tension in the cavernous banquet room was palpable. Most if not all of the 2000 participants sat on the edges of their seats in anticipation of the next awardee of the ERG in Action award for outstanding programing by an ERG chapter. When Belinda Grant-Anderson called out The NETwork Illinois chapter, a roar erupted from the audience. The chapter received much due recognition for “Real Men Read,” a program that brought men out in force to read to elementary school children in at-risk communities in the city of Chicago.
The program began as an offshoot of the Teacher Appreciation Week initiative, a standing program the chapter had been involved in. Sylvia Knox, a member of the chapter’s Illinois Student Affairs Committee, noticed that when volunteers went out to read to the students, the children, particularly the boys, responded differently to the male volunteers. Sylvia also recalled a conversation with Robert Cooper, a founding member of The NETwork predecessor organization ABAP, and for whom the Illinois Chapter scholarship program is named. During a program in which he spoke, Mr. Cooper, looking around the room, asked Sylvia a pointed question – “Where are the men?”
The seeds of those two experiences, sprouted Real Men Read. The goal of the program was to dispel the negative images that surrounds the children in those neighborhoods and replace them with the idea that a good education can lead to a positive life. The point was driven home by providing positive male role models. Eighteen men, predominantly field service technicians, as well as managers and an Area Manager that served as a partner in the program, came out in force to visit the schools.
On the day of the school visits, a parade of company branded trucks would descend, bring technicians in their tool belts and hard hats. Teachers provided the books and the mean would read to the students. After the reading, the volunteers would answer questions from the students about what they do in their work day. The power of that interaction, is as Ms. Knox said, “Hidden behind those trucks and doors of AT&T are some positive role models.”
The $5000 award the chapter received at the conference will help the chapter to grow and expand the program. It continues into the current school year with a partnership with a new Chicago school that recently received a prestigious Blue Ribbon award for academic excellence. When the next motorcade of AT&T trucks roll into the neighborhood, the image will be firmly planted by the men and women supporting the program that, “little boys and girls that read, grow up to be productive men and women that read.”
*Chapter President Darshell Slaughter & Vice President Eddie Curry Jr. accepting the ERG in Action Award