National literacy advocate encourages local advocates

National literacy advocate Earl Martin Phalen, chief executive officer of Reach Out and Read, recently visited Oklahoma City to encourage local literacy advocates.
BY CARLA HINTON chinton@opubco.com Published: September 16, 2012
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A national literacy advocacy leader recently brought his literacy message to the Oklahoma City metro area.

Earl Martin Phalen, chief executive officer of the national literacy advocacy organization Reach Out and Read, met with community leaders involved with the nonprofit's state affiliate.

Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy and school readiness through pediatric exam room visits across the country. As part of the program, participating pediatricians present parents with a free children's book along with a message about the importance of reading aloud to their child.

Phalen said the literacy message is close to his heart because of his background.

He said he was born in the Boston area to a single mom who had dropped out of community college in the late 1960s. Phalen, who is black, said his mother placed him up for adoption at a time when the Boston child welfare system was featured in the local newspaper as burgeoning with young boys, particularly black boys, whose futures were decidedly bleak.

Phalen said he was fortunate that he was adopted and became one of eight children in a loving Roman Catholic family. Phalen went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from Yale University and a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.

He said while at Harvard, he joined with another student to start the community tutoring and mentoring program Building Educated Leaders for Life, named for their beloved professor Derrick Bell.

Phalen said he was startled to learn that there was only one child in the program's first mentoring group who could read at grade level. He said since then, he has been an advocate for early childhood literacy programs, believing such literacy — or lack thereof — can be a harbinger of the future for youths. He has received numerous awards for his advocacy, including the President's Service Award for outstanding community service, presented to him by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

In 2009, Phalen became CEO of Reach Out and Read, an organization started in 1989 by two Boston pediatricians.

“If we want our children to be successful globally, education has to start before kindergarten,” Phalen said during his recent metro visit.

He said Reach Out and Read has touched the lives of about 30,000 children in Oklahoma through a committed network of state pediatricians and hospitals sharing important literacy information with parents.

Phalen said he'd like to see the program reach even more young people because statistics show there is much need for such programs.

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