“Literacy is at the root of a person’s ability to succeed, and the family is at the heart,” states the National Center for Family Literacy. Since November is National Family Literacy Month, we thought we would share two stories of former residents whose experience at Hillsides enabled them to read and devour books.
Emotionally challenged, Gary Drake’s mother was unable to care for her son properly and opted to place him at Hillsides. Self described as out of control, Gary came to live at Hillsides when he was only 11 years old. He remembers only being able to read at a second grade level when he was in fifth grade. Gary also despised homework. While he lived at Hillsides, staff would drive him weekly to the University of Southern California’s tutoring program to learn how to read.
“I learned how to show up no matter what is happening,” Gary said. “I was forced to look at the consequences for your actions. If you don’t read, life is harder than it already is.”
Living in a structured environment like Hillsides helped him in many more ways than just reading. He learned to negotiate with others, live among a diverse group, and manage different projects. Today, Gary is a general contractor to celebrities like Sting, Madonna, Jim Carrey, and others. He credits part of his success to the various skills he learned while living at Hillsides.
While he still does not like homework, Gary understands the importance of literacy, encouraging and supporting a structured environment in his own home that requires reading time. With four children in elementary school, Gary, with support from his wife, leads a model home of children participating in extracurricular activities like piano, surfing, gymnastics and Taekwondo and doing homework.
For John Downes, his experience at Hillsides inspired him to become an author of seven books — three novels and four non-fictions. After World War II in 1946, John’s parents divorced. In the following summer they took the train to Los Angeles, where his mother arranged for him and his sister to live at the Episcopal Church Home for Children, known as Hillsides today. John was seven years old at the time, and lived in the Boys Cottage, while his sister, Joan, two years older than him, lived in the Girls Cottage.
“I became a voracious reader when I lived there. Not only did I read the entire series of The Hardy Boys books, but I read practically everything else in the library. I was in awe of anyone who could write stories. I told stories to the boys in the Boys Cottage,” John stated in an email to Hillsides. “Some Friday nights, a man named Luther came and told us ghost stories. They were very scary. He did it without notes or pauses. It was very inspiring for me.”
When John and Joan left the home and moved to Salem, Oregon, he continued to “invent stories, write them, and relate them aloud to my friends. Even in the Boy Scouts, I was sought out at camporees to tell stories.”
While in high school, his journalism teacher saw his writing ability and became a strong influence in his life. In his adult years, John pursued screenwriting and two dramas were optioned by producers at major studios. However, nothing was produced. In the 1990s John wrote his first published novel, A Few Deadly Friends, which was an adaptation of his first screenplay, Criminal Bent. It was the first of three novels, all different genres — mystery, literary fiction, war novel.
Literacy is important to our social, economic and political environment. Teaching the significance of reading and the skill to the children and families we serve is a lasting benefit. Hillsides’ children’s library rivals any other library in the city. We have an amazing collection of more than 8,000 books and about 14 reading groups. Author visits engage and inspire our children and students at Hillsides Education Center. Sherri Ginsberg, our librarian, customizes any volunteer’s talent with a reading workshop to bring a higher rate of participation by our children. We are so pleased to hear that a child, for the first time, read an entire book—all because they were motivated by the author or the volunteer that gave their time to explore a world of imagination, laughter and hope.
Have you read a book lately? Have you volunteered lately? What do you do with your family to encourage reading? Share your stories with us.