Doing Good: Coaching for Literacy Full gives illiteracy the full court press

Harnessing the power of sports fandom to promote literacy, two Memphis high school students created  Coaching for Literacy, an inventive program that incentivizes charitable giving by offering a chance to be "coach" for the day. Since its local launch in 2012, the homegrown project is now a national entity.
When Memphis University School teacher Spencer Reese challenged his English students to do something for their community, and two high school seniors dreamed up a way to leverage zealous   colleges sports fandom for good.

Andrew Renshaw and Jonathan Wilfong came up with the concept for Coaching For Literacy 2012, modeled after the Caddy For a Cure golf program that raises money for cancer research. Inspired by their first-hand experiences with friends who overcame illiteracy, the pair knew literacy was where their focus would lay. The young sports fans had also seen sports successfully bridge barriers in Memphis.
Jonathan Wilfong
“I saw the power literacy had in helping a teammate of mine back in middle school. But beyond the personal experience, it’s a fundamental skill that everyone should have and the foundation to one’s education,” Wilfong said.

Coaching For Literacy (CFL) is a simple incentive program: the organization allows sports fans to donate money to literacy programs in exchange for an "assistant coaching experience" with their favorite college basketball or football team.

“You get the whole experience,” said CFL Executive Director Ryan Viner. “They are there for the pre-game shoot around and the pre-game meal. They ride with the team on the bus to the game, they are in the locker room before the game, and they watch the warm-ups and the game from the sidelines.”

The only caveats are that the guest "coaches" aren't allowed in the locker room during half-time, when teams are making quick adjustments to their game plan, and are generally only allowed in the locker room after the game if it results in a victory. But win or lose, they get to attend the post-game press conference.

The statistics on illiteracy are starling for people who don't realize the scale of what is largely a silent epidemic. Most adults who cannot read try to hide the fact. In the United States, there are an estimated 32 million adults who are functionally illiterate, meaning they can't read a newspaper or instructions on a bottle of pills, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Among adults with the lowest literacy rates in the U.S., 43 percent live in poverty. Among the country's prison inmates, 63 percent are functionally illiterate.

“Many people have identified the education gap in our country as the greatest civil rights issue of our time, so Jonathan and I connected on our shared passion for bridging this education disparity,” said Co-Founder Renshaw.

More impressive than the initial notion of raising funds to tutor people towards literacy was the fact that two 18-year-olds were able to transition the idea to reality. Jonathan Wilfong's father, John Wilfong, was a shooting guard for the then-Memphis State University Tigers on the 1985 Final Four team under coach Dana Kirk (through the early years of Larry Finch's career as the school's head coach). Today, the elder Wilfong is a Senior Vice President at UBS Financials as well as an AAU basketball coach for the past 20 years.

“The boys had the heart and the general idea to use the power of sports. John had the practical connections,” Viner said.

John Wilfong quickly recognized the program's potential for success.
“Jonathan and Andrew would come to my office once a week during lunch, and my business partner, Doug Meyer, and I would meet with them. It was essentially two high school students starting a business,” he said. “I knew it would be successful two weeks into the venture."

Finding financial support to get the nonprofit effort off the ground was made easier by the elder Wilfong's connections, as well.

"I was standing next to Bill Rhodes, a friend of mine and current CEO of Autozone. He asked me what Jonathan was up to and I mentioned he and Andrew had started CFL and what they were trying to accomplish. His quote back to me was, 'That is incredible. Have them call me and I'll support it.' Additionally, every college basketball coach we asked to support our initial season all said yes. I'll be forever grateful to Memphis Coach Josh Pastner, Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, Tony Bennett at Virginia, Tommy Amaker at Harvard and Stan Jones at Florida State. They were and continue to be very supportive.”

The program's first assistant coach event was the Memphis vs. Louisville basketball game in December of 2012. “Last year we had 14 events—13 basketball and one football—that raised $40,000. Of that we allocated $35,000 to 16 different literacy programs,” Viner said.

Donors have paid as little as $300 for some events and as much as $5,000 for others, depending on the school and the specific game.

Coaching For Literacy gives $0.85 per dollar donated directly to literacy programs. The programs selected for support must fill out grant forms to receive funds. Last year's fundraising helped 2,000 students and 158 tutors.

“The majority of their money is going to the actual cause,” Viner said of the CFL donors. Funding is focused towards younger people, based on the profound statistic that if a child isn't reading at grade level by the fourth grade there is a two in three chance they will end up on welfare or in prison at some point.

Along with the Coaching For Literacy program, the group also has an annual event called Revitalizing Literacy through Sports. Last year's event featured a basketball forum with current Southern Methodist University coach Larry Brown (a "living legend" as the only coach to win both college and NBA national titles) and CBS Sports basketball writer Gary Parrish. The event raised $123,000; over $65,000 was allocated to literacy initiatives and $40,000 was directed to Memphis Teacher Residency and Streets Ministries programs. 

The younger Wilfong now plays for the SMU basketball program while Renshaw, who scored a perfect 36 on his ACT, is a student at Vanderbilt. The two are both Coaching For Literacy board members and both of their universities are part of the non-profit's Collegiate Chapter's program, which provides volunteer opportunities for colleges involved in the Coaching For Literacy program.

“Most students want to do something to get involved. But they tend to ask themselves, 'What should I do? When can I do it? Do I want to give up that much time?' When someone from your class or a friend has something that they are involved in, the first two barriers are cleared and the third is usually cleared when there are a group of friends involved together,” the younger Wilfong said.

“College-age students are in a unique season of their lives because they have a relative abundance of free time and ample opportunity to discover their passions. Our college chapters of Coaching For Literacy have provided many students with an outlet to channel their energies into helping promote literacy among elementary school students,” Renshaw added. "The rapid growth of Coaching for Literacy to become the program that it is today has exceeded even our most optimistic projections. We have been blown away by the incredible support of Coaching for Literacy both locally and across the country."

Read more articles by Craig Meek.

Craig David Meek is a writer, small business owner and lifelong Memphian. He is the author of the book Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul available from the History Press.
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