The city of Columbia was singled out by the White House on Wednesday for its success in implementing one of President Obama’s signature programs, the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin met in Washington, D.C., Wednesday with members of the administration to update them on the progress of the program, which in part helps kids get summer job experience and gets books to kids in barber shops.
In 2014, Obama urged communities to help all kids meet their potential regardless of the circumstances into which they were born.
In Columbia, the Summer Work Experience Leadership Program (SWELP) has grown since it was started in 2014 and has about 750 students participating this year, the mayor’s office said.
The Mayor’s Barbershop Books program, which was launched in August, has put books in the hands of up to 22,000 boys in the Midlands as they wait to have their hair cut.
In his 2016 State of the City address, Benjamin vowed to expand the Barbershop Books program in a new literacy initiative. He announced a partnership involving the Richland Library, Cocky's Reading Express, Alvin Irby and Barbershop Books with a donation from CIGNA to put 10,000 books in 100 barbershops across Columbia over the next two years.
Johnny Baez, the owner of Holidays Barber Shop at 230 Huger St., started participating in the program earlier this year.
“When I was a youth, I struggled with reading – I was all in for it,” he said in explaining why he jumped at the opportunity to be a barbershop with books.
The kids who come in for cuts are excited to see what he has available to read.
“When kids come in, they run to the boat to grab a book,” he said.
Baez set up his books, which range from picture books to about 7th grade level, in a small boat in his barber shop.
He said he has seen kids who used to come in glued to their cell phone screens turn off the phones and turn on to a book.
What’s especially cool, he said, is to see a child walk out of the barbershop with a book in his hand. The kids are allowed to take the books home and keep them, he said.
The MBK program was designed to help bridge the opportunity gap that exists for many boys and young men of color, the White House stated. Some $600 million from the private sector and philanthropies and $1 billion in financing has been used in communities of need across the nation, it said.