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A labor of love, reading to children

For some, it is a special book they once read to their own children or grandchildren, or an exciting new book they’ve checked out of the public library

Kevin Callahan is among the men who read to students at Matteson school on Thursdays. (John Fountain photo)
Kevin Callahan is among the men who reads to students at Matteson school on Thursdays.
John Fountain/For the Sun-Times

“Thursdays occupy a special place in our hearts at Matteson Elementary because we are given a new opportunity each week to interact with a group of men we have come to know and love.”

–Gregory Huelsman, principal, Matteson Elementary School

In their adopted school classrooms, “Mr. Kevin” makes a habit of teaching “his kids” French while “Mr. Rick” shares with “his kids” his fluency in Polish.

Like Kevin Callahan and Richard Siska (whom the kids call Mr. Rick and Mr. Kevin), other men who read to the children on Thursdays at south suburban Matteson Elementary School, kindergarten to third grade, bring their own specialties to their volunteer time.

For some, it is a special book they once read to their own children or grandchildren, or an exciting new book they’ve checked out of the public library. Or it might be a morning snack. Or leading the class in song.

Or it’s simply making a habit of shaking little boys’ hands so they know the proper way (chin up, look a man in his eye.)

For men who began reading on Thursdays four years ago, theirs continues to be a labor of love.

“I love reading and I love kids,” said Herbert G. Hopkins, 69, who is among the faithful dozen readers each Thursday, though there have been as many as 40 at times.

“The feeling I get when I walk into the classroom and the kids greet me is wonderful,” added Hopkins. “I really feel appreciated. It’s my favorite day of the week.”

The men come from near and far. Siska, 85, lives just blocks away and says he has found his “purpose.” Callahan lives in the northwest suburbs and commutes an hour each way. Most don’t live in Matteson. None have children or grandchildren attending the school. But none of that matters.

Regis Browder explains: The men “get together one day of the week to read and encourage and remind them that someday they too will do great things.”

You understand that kids “just need a lift,” Browder, 63, told me. “And we may be the only male role model they see...”

For Callahan, a former French teacher, his motivation is simple.

“It takes a village. And I think that these kids here in Matteson, are just as much my kids and my responsibility as any kids anywhere in the area.”

My own decision to begin reading at Matteson happened organically four years ago when I spoke at the school’s “Dad’s Day” program. The principal then, Pamela Powell, asked men present that day to sign a pledge to return to read. So I did.

Weeks later, I showed up one Thursday morning to keep my word and discovered that no one else, so far, had come.

One morning after reading, as I walked down the school’s main corridor with the principal, we both noticed a little boy walking past us, staring directly at me, as if he was seeing a ghost. He almost walked into the wall.

“Did you see that?” the principal asked.

I did. He wasn’t used to seeing men there. And I decided that day that I would continue to read on Thursdays — at least until seeing men there to read and mentor became routine.

I wrote a column asking other men to join me. And they have. (Dear brothers, I’m grateful.)

Except we can’t quite figure out who benefits the most from our presence.

“Today when I walked in, they all got up and applauded,” reader Melvin Wormely, 72, told me one morning last spring. “That does something to you. It gets you right here,” he said, pointing to his heart.

And it also did Callahan’s heart good not long ago to walk past a kid in the hallway as he was leaving the school after reading:

“Au revoir,” the little boy said.

“Au revoir,” said Mr. Kevin.

… Until the fall.

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com