By Chris Anderson
SARASOTA — When Leroy Butler was small, maybe 3, his mother, Jewel Johnson, would bring in a stack of bills from the mailbox, pretend she didn’t know what they said, and have him read them out loud.
She would take him to Winn-Dixie and say, “Get me some green beans. Which ones are the green beans?" Butler would scour the shelves until he found them. And he always found them.
He would go to his grandmother’s house and read out of the big, dusty medical terminology book she had, and go ahead, find another preschool kid who enjoys doing that.
Butler wasn’t raised by television or video games like many kids. He was raised by words and books and he learned at a very young age: “Literacy is the most liberating thing on this planet," he says. He also came to discover it was the only sure-fire way to make his life a success.
His mother had him at 14, his father was in prison for murder, and he grew up living in the Janie Poe projects in Newtown, so the odds were against him from the start. But with each turn of the page the odds began to slowly shift.
“She knew she wanted better for me so education was at the forefront," Butler says. “She told me, ‘You won’t live in poverty and you won’t live in the projects.’ School was always number one. She looked at education, literacy and reading as my way out."
Butler’s mom enrolled in a program called HIPPY, which stands for Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters. It gives low-income parents the tools, skills and books to become their child’s first teacher and prepares them for school. The 30-week program is for children ages 3-5 and it provides weekly home visits and group meetings.
The program benefited Butler tremendously and had a profound impact on his life. He graduated from Booker High in 2007, was a star on the football team, earned a degree from Lafayette College, returned to Sarasota to coach at Booker and works at the United Way as a parent community outreach liaison.
He is now 27 and tries to pass on the benefits of literacy, reading and academics to everyone he can.
Prepared for school
In April, Butler attended the national HIPPY conference in Orlando and spoke on behalf of the program and how it molded who he is today. Butler was in the program for one year when he was a preschooler.
“He said HIPPY saved his life,” says Margie Margolies, chairwoman of HIPPY USA. “When I heard that I thought it was hyperbole, but at the end of the story I realized it literally did save his life. Many of his contemporaries had died over the years while he was keeping his nose in the books.
“It was extremely moving and when he was done there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
The HIPPY program began in Israel in 1969 before it came to the United States, where it has now been implemented in 23 states. Florida was one of the first, Margolies says, beginning its program in 1984. There are offices in Bradenton and Sarasota and 17,000 families are said to participate nationwide.
Research has shown that participants are more prepared for school and also have better attendance, behavior and peer interaction once they get there.
Margolies says by kindergarten a lower-income child will have heard 30 million fewer words than a middle-class child, a startling statistic that underscores the program’s importance.
“I’m extremely passionate about it,” she says. “I really think it works. An investment up front in children saves lot of money in hardship later.
“People are more employable and earn higher salaries, which is good for the economy and people stay out of jail.”
The HIPPY program received a boost when Bill Clinton mentioned it during a speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Hillary Clinton helped bring the first program to Arkansas when she was first lady of the state.
“Twenty years of research has shown how well this program works to improve readiness for school and academic achievement,” Bill Clinton said in the speech. “There are a lot of young adults in the United States who are enjoying better lives because they were in that program.”
Known for his hard hits, Butler was a standout linebacker on the 2006 Booker football team that reached the state finals. Sam Shields, who currently plays for the Green Bay Packers, was a receiver on that team.
Butler is now an assistant coach at Booker, and unlike nearly every person in the United States who played high school football, he only talks about the sport if you ask him. He always liked reading better than football. He enjoyed the game, excelled at it, but saw it more as an alternative avenue if he ever needed one.
Here’s how serious Butler is about academics and reading: During spring practice some of his players had underachieved on their progress reports. They went to study hall for three straight days instead of practicing.
“I tell kids all the time,” Butler says, ‘I’m not out here because I love football. You guys love football. I’m out here as a vehicle to show you different options. I’m using it as a vehicle to build character. I’m using it as a vehicle to tell you how important education is.’”
“Football ends for everybody and when it’s done, what’s next?”
Butler has a 3-year-old son named King Andre Butler, and maybe one day he will play football just like his father. But this is much more certain: He will be a reader.
Butler was reading to his son before he was born, and every time he did he says his son would kick inside his mother’s stomach.
And now, each day when Butler arrives home from work, almost as soon as he can get through the door, his son says to him, “Daddy, go get my book.”