American Heart: Earl Phalen, Teaching Kids to Read

PHOTO Earl Phalen tutors first and second grade students in Dorchester, Mass., in this 1998 file photo.

Earl Phalen's life has been spent fighting tough statistics. Today, he's focused on the more than one third of American kids who start kindergarten without the basic skills they need to learn how to read. One cause of the problem is that less than half of parents read to their kids on a daily basis, and that is where Phalen sees an opportunity.

As CEO of 'Reach Out and Read,' he is on a crusade to put books in the hands of young children. Every year, his non-profit organization gives books to nearly four million kids, ages 5 and under, in the hope that reading to young children -- even if they're only six months old -- will prepare them for a more successful life.

Before working to help children, Phalen had to fight the odds himself. Abandoned at birth in 1967, he grew up to graduate from Yale University and Harvard Law. As he is quick to point out, 70 percent of African American boys in similar circumstances end up behind bars. The difference for Phalen came in the form of family -- a large, white, Irish-Catholic family.

"My parents decided to adopt an eighth child -- me. They decided to adopt a black child because of the social issues of the time," Phalen said.

His mother, Veronica Phalen, raised her large family with her husband George in a suburb outside of Boston, and she herself was not that far removed from the sting of discrimination. Her parents had emigrated from Ireland, only to find "Irish Need Not Apply" posted in many windows. She saw the parallels between that time and the injustice of the 1960s for black Americans.

Holding to a Higher Standard

Adopting a black child may have had political importance for the family, but Earl was raised the same as his seven siblings, with strong religious values and an equally strong work ethic.

Phalen played three sports in school because his parents required the kids to either be involved in extracurricular activities or hold down jobs.

"There was always the expectation that we would be the best," Phalen recalled. "My dad's famous statement was, 'Well, that's good, but there's room for improvement.'"

Those demanding standards -- and his performance on the high-school basketball court -- carried Phalen into Yale and then Harvard Law, where he was a classmate and friend of Barack Obama.

American Heart: Serving Kids While at Harvard Law

It was during his law school years that he focused on helping children as his mission in life. After two summers spent working with kids at orphanages and community centers, Phalen was nearly ready to quit law school, inspired by the chance to make a real impact.

"The notion that, literally, if you show up four weeks in a row and you remember a child's name and what they've said to you, you can absolutely change the life course of a child," Phalen said.

Phalen stayed at Harvard but found another way to make a difference. With a classmate, he founded BELL, "Building Educated Leaders for Life," a non-profit tutoring and mentoring program. The program started with fewer than two dozen kids, and Phalen promised to hold them to high standards -- the same way his parents had motivated him.

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