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9-year-old Cleveland boy tackles city's illiteracy issues by starting reading organization

9-year-old Cleveland boy tackles city's illiteracy issues by starting reading organization
Posted at 4:21 PM, Apr 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 18:53:20-04

CLEVELAND — Illiteracy is a problem plaguing the city of Cleveland in huge numbers. Now, a young boy named Derrick Smith is working to overcome those statistics by starting an organization to show other young boys that reading can be a lot of fun.

At just 9 years old, Derrick has seen firsthand how being a good reader sets you up for success.

“Reading really encouraged my life when I passed my third-grade reading test,” Derrick said.

It all starts at home.

“My mom, she always makes me - on a weekend - she said before I can play my game I have to either read or feed my spirit, and I do both sometimes,” Derrick said.

Derrick's mom is Chrishawndra Matthews, the founder of local non-profit Literacy in the HOOD, and also known as "The Book Dealer," delivering free books to families in inner-city Cleveland neighborhoods.

“Here in the city of Cleveland, it says two out of three school-aged children don't have any books at home, period,” Matthews said.

According to Seeds of Literacy, 66% of Cleveland residents are functionally illiterate.

Matthews’s mission is to educate families and reverse that trend.

“Reading 15 to 20 minutes a day will change a child's life. If a child reads 20 minutes a day, at the end of the school year they know 1,800,000 new words,” Matthews said.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“That kind of encouraged me to make my own program,” Derrick said.

Derrick started his own literacy-focused organization two years ago called Boys Do Read.

“I started it to make reading fun again for boys,” Derrick said.

He does that through monthly events at locations throughout the city, providing games and food to first catch the boys’ interest, but also lots of free books.

“Not only do we bring books, but we bring books that they also like to read," Matthews said. "So now they have a sense of going home with the books, but now they're excited about the books, and it turns from being a punishment to being something exciting."

Derrick also launched a new program within Boys Do Read called I Am Black History. The program celebrates accomplishments by Black Americans throughout history.

The latest event was held on March 31 at All Around Children on Woodland Avenue and featured special guests, including Erik Melendez, the vice president of the Hispanic Police Association of Cleveland.

“The boys need to know the police officers so they can have a comfort level. If I'm scared of you, I don't have a comfort level with you, but if I know you or introduce you, then I'm more likely to at least speak, and then you speak back,” Matthews said.

The event also featured motivational speaker Mike Berry, who encouraged the boys to believe in themselves and apply themselves in school.

“Every day, when we wake up we see we're losing our boys to the streets, and if you follow the statistics, we're not losing those boys to the streets because they wanted to be in the streets — those boys can't read,” Matthews said. “And when you can't read, you can't pass the test, and when you can't pass the test, you get in the streets because the streets got a way of comforting those that drop out of school.

“So then when you look at our dropout rates here in the city, it's like what can we do? Well, we are going to wrap some resources around the boys, we're going to wrap some entertainment around the boys, we're going to bring some positive influence to the boys, give the boys an opportunity to see men they can look up to, and men they can become.”

Everyone coming together for one simple goal can have such a huge impact, Derrick said.

"We just want to make sure that boys are reading, because sometimes they forget about reading,” he said. “Me and my mom just want to encourage parents, boys, kids, girls, all of that.”

The next Boys Do Read: I Am Black History event is on April 28 at Boys Hope Girls Hope​ in Garfield Heights from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. It's free to the public.

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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