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Rallying around Reading -- and Detroit

There is something breathtaking about an auditorium filled with 2,500 people united for the same cause: That children matter. That education matters. That Detroit matters.

Saturday morning, I left my family, drove across town, braved some ridiculous parking conditions and begrudgingly went through the metal detectors at Renaissance High School with a mission – to become a member of Detroit Public Schools' Reading Corps.

Honestly, the desire to wimp out, turn around and head home was strong.

Then, I walked into the auditorium. It was one of the more memorable moments of my adult life. The feeling was nothing short of awe. This was something much larger than anyone expected. The crowd that gathered this somber January morning made a powerful statement. We are a community serious about one thing: Improving Detroit now and in the future.

I took a seat on the bleachers to get a wide view of the turnout. Amazing. So many people! Black, white, Arab, Indian. Teenagers, 20somethings, soccer moms, retired teachers. Organizers told us that people from 138 different municipalities signed up to volunteer: Detroit, Southfield, Farmington, Royal Oak, Beverly Hills, Harper Woods. The list went on and on. Can you believe it? One Hundred Thirty Eight. More than half came from outside of the city. This from a region that still debates whether you care about Detroit if you don't live within its borders.

Emotion took hold, strong and swift. Since I became a parent, my love for humanity (and my heart) has grown as much as the Grinch's when he realized the meaning of Christmas. The woman who formerly expressed road rage or treated strangers badly was reformed. I came to realize we are all someone's child, whether we are young or old. And we deserve respect and a chance to succeed.

So when I saw all of these people gathered for a single cause, unexpected tears welled up. I had to look away from the spectacular sight because it overwhelmed me. Hard to explain why. Maybe it was the excitement, the largess of pure intentions. But it was hard to catch my breath for a moment, and I soaked it in. Such moments – these humbling, human learning experiences – are fleeting, and I've learned to linger over these feelings as long as possible.

The morning began with a Reading Corps rally; motivation that many of us desperately needed. Organizers told us that the total number of volunteers so far tops 3,630. That will result in more than 434,180 volunteer hours for Detroit Public Schools for the next five years (or more). DPS will use us as tutors for pre-kindergarten students, helping these preschoolers with writing and reading. We have committed to spend one hour a week in the schools, helping two students improve their literacy during tightly organized tutoring sessions. Chances are we will go way beyond this, getting into as many classrooms as possible.

Tables lined the walls of the auditorium inside and out. Each school with a pre-kindergarten program had a huge display, complete with candy, balloons and other draws to catch the volunteers' attention. Their goal was to promote their school as the right fit for each potential tutor, hoping to gain as much momentum from this monumental project as they could.

The lineup of speakers was thrilling. There was Charles Pugh, the new president of Detroit City Council – and a DPS graduate! He plans on becoming a volunteer. And the lovely Yvette Bing, the First Lady of the city of Detroit. She too is a DPS grad and plans to volunteer. Mrs. Bing described Robert Bobb, DPS emergency financial manager, as an angel. The crowd, who obviously feel the same way, gave her (and Bobb) a standing ovation.

Bobb spoke as well. Let me tell you, I was a fan before. Now, I'm ready to start a blog just to talk about this guy. He admitted he is intimidated by few people, but he too felt intimidated by the thought of becoming a Reading Corps volunteer and facing those little faces.

Still, we all press on. “There is no greater movement we can create,” Bobb said, describing the day's participants as “champions of children.”

He said Detroit is in the midst of a reading emergency – he added that some DPS principals have told him that more than half of their students are not reading at grade level. That cannot stand, Bobb said. Detroit needs readers, students who can achieve during their school years and beyond. To fail these children is to fail the city, the region and the state.

There are two reasons people volunteer, Bobb noted. The first is to give back to the community. The second is to change the world. In this case, we were there to change the world for Detroit's children.

Volunteers still need to go through background checks, fingerprinting and more training before they get into the schools. Chances are the project won't get a strong start until the next school year. But at least it has started. Thank goodness for DPS, Bobb, The Detroit Free Press and Yvette Bing for making it happen.

I've lived in Michigan my whole life. I worked in Detroit. I've lived in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. My family, in theory, is invested here. Yet these past few months are proven revolutionary. Falling in love with your city is one of the most extraordinary experiences. I've always laughed at Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City” for her relationship with New York. But I'm starting to understand how a person can get wrapped up in a place. Living in, by, around Detroit has its downside. But the upside is so incredibly uplifting. I'm completely smitten.

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