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Bloomington Barbers Join Forces To Improve Youth Literacy

Mary, Erick, and Karen
Tiffani Jackson
From left, Mary Yount, Erick Howard, and Karen Schmidt from the new Barbers with Books program at the WGLT studios.

Erick Howard was only 12 when his mother realized he had an eye for precision.

“As a young adult I was able to cut all kinds of designs in people’s hair, but one day my mother said, ‘Son, what are you going to do when people aren’t wearing those styles anymore?’” Howard recalled. “I said, ‘Mommy they’re always going to wear them.’ She said, ‘Do you see people still walking around with haircuts from the 50s?’ I said no. She said, ‘Well you should really start focusing on your craft,’ and from that day on it sparked something in me.”

Twenty years later after graduating from barber school and becoming a local instructor, Howard is the owner of One of A Kind Barbershop in downtown Bloomington.

In an effort to make an impact on today’s youth, Howard recently joined forces with the West Bloomington Revitalization Project (WBRP). Inspired by the Read To Your Barber Literacy Program, launched by Ryan Griffin of Ypsilanti, Mich., in 2015, the organization is bringing to concept to Bloomington-Normal with its new initiative, called Books With Barbers.

“We recognize that the youth are a vital part of our community, so we want to make sure they have the best education and are well connected with the adults around them. Reading is a part of that,” said Karen Schmidt, a board member of the organization and founder its Book Bike program.

When his shop was invited to participate in the program, Howard didn’t hesitate to join. 

“I was ecstatic to join in because I know the kids are the future,” Howard said. “I grew up on the south side of Chicago in Englewood public housing, so I saw a lot of bad things when I was young. I’m a firm believer in the motto “each one, teach one,” so when I see kids getting involved with drugs or gang violence, I mentor them to make a difference in their lives. And I think the program is another great way to get them on the right path.”

Although kids can be fidgety in the barber chair, Howard said the best part is being able to interact with them and play a role in their education.

“I've never been a part of something so beautiful. Parents have come to my shop to show me clippings of the paper and they’re very appreciative of our efforts, so it’s been an amazing experience. I take my hat off to these ladies (Schmidt and fellow program leader Mary Yount) because they’ve done a magnificent job with the initiative,” he said. 

Right now the initiative is still in its beginning stages. One of A Kind and A Kut Above, 919 W. Market St., Bloomington, are the only two participating barbershops. 

“At this point, we're trying to figure out exactly how to keep the book stock fresh. Once we have a good solid program with our two barber shops, we’ll be looking to expand that to (other) barbers and salons,” said Yount.

“Both genders get their haircut all over Bloomington-Normal, so the more we can have children feel comfortable with reading and are able to show them that it matters to the people around them that love them, the better. This is an opportunity to help build that sense of community with the children and the adults in Bloomington-Normal, so that’s what we’re aiming for,” she said. 

In the future, the West Bloomington Revitalization Project hopes to get more high-profile community leaders and even expand the language of the books being read to Spanish and French.

To make a contribution or find out more information about Barbers with Books, visit the West Bloomington Revitalization Project website.

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.