New London man motivating youth through online reading
New London – “Hello everyone, this is Mr. Booker. And I’m really excited about the book we’re about to read today.”
It’s how longtime educator, motivational speaker and New London City Council member Kevin Booker Jr. begins each installment of his newest video series, "Read and Learn with Mr. Booker," on Facebook at bit.ly/MrBookerFB.
The series is part of Booker’s one-man effort to make the lives of others just a bit easier during the coronavirus pandemic, when kids are out of school. Joined by a cast of stuffed animals, Booker said his goal during each book reading is simple: “motivate students to continue their learning.”
“I believe it’s crucial to keep our students engaged and reading while they are at home. They get a little restless and we have to continue motivating them on the importance of education, of reading and writing,” he said. “I want everyone to have equal access to a high-quality education and way of life. Reading opens doors for children to be successful and productive members of our community.”
Seated alongside Leo the sloth and Olivia the owl, Booker used a fireplace in the empty dining room of the Green Room Restaurant on Bank Street as a backdrop for a recent reading of “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers. For the older children, he has been reading chapters from the "Crunchy Life" series by Glen Mourning.
Green Room owner Jonai Phillips was impressed and said Booker was making the rounds downtown and had stopped in to ask about how the restaurant is faring and what he could do to help.
“I think it’s great,” Phillips said. “I mean, no one knows how long the kids will be out of school. The kids are probably driving their parents crazy. Kids are always on the internet anyway and there’s a lot of weird stuff out there. What he’s doing sounds relatable. He has really good energy.”
Booker’s settings change daily and have included his car because, he tells viewers, “you can read anywhere.”
His introduction to each book typically starts with a hand washing and beat boxing, or vocal percussion, something he said he’s been doing since age 6, a creative outlet to help him connect and engage with others.
Booker said along with the educational aspect of the readings, he is offering himself as a role model for community youth.
He grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Hartford in what he said was a loving, multigenerational home where parents, grandparents and members of his community served as his role models.
He said he sees New London in a similar way, a place filled with leaders invested in the community, and that helps motivate him. When asked about who in the community inspires him, he ticked off a list of more than a dozen people, from school board President Regina Mosley to former City Councilor Martin Olsen, calling them devoted, selfless and committed.
Booker has been an educator since 2002 and taught middle school and high school, is an adjunct professor at Asnuntuck Community College and volunteers at New London elementary, middle and high schools. Before schools canceled classes, he was regularly reading to third-graders, and performing morning announcements at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. He’s a guest lecturer, member of the Anti-Defamation League and board member of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication. He is the founder of Booker Empowerment LLC, teaching public speaking and leading diversity and leadership workshops.
Booker has made himself known to the New London community through initiatives like Ride with Councilor Booker, meeting a group at the New London train station for a ride on a SEAT bus through the city to hear ideas and concerns.
He has performed a third-shift ride-along with police, donned turnout gear with firefighters and completed Disaster Institute Training with the local Red Cross chapter.
The social distancing part of the coronavirus scare is an especially cruel mandate for Booker, who under normal circumstances is as quick with a friendly embrace as he is with his smile.
“I never thought in my lifetime I would experience anything like this. It’s hard,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just the world we’re living in.”
He’s continued his outreach in the virtual world, releasing an ongoing series of videos spotlighting people during Women’s History Month, such as Chien-Shiung Wu, known as the first lady of physics, and former University of Connecticut basketball superstar Diana Taurasi. He’s done similar videos for Black History Month.
He is planning a regular series highlighting small New London businesses and continues to post motivational videos that include “rise and shine” and “positive bedtime prayers.”
What else can he do? His most recent Facebook post asks “Need Support Shopping?” He’s asked anyone over the age of 65 in need of groceries or other household items to call him. He’ll do the shopping.
“There is a quote my uncle shared with me when I was younger that I live by, ‘When you see a problem, that is why God created you.’”
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