Memphis-based Coaching for Literacy shoots to change the rate of illiteracy

A nationwide push that uses college basketball as a platform to improve literacy rates got its start at a Memphis high school.

Five years ago, Memphis University School students Jonathan Wilfong and Andrew Renshaw launched Coaching for Literacy as a class project. Now nationally recognized, Coaching for Literacy has drawn support from 40 NCAA partners.

“My son, Jonathan, and his friend, Andrew, started Coaching for Literacy as a class project their senior year,” said Coaching for Literacy board chairman and former Memphis State basketball player John Wilfong.

The challenge put out by their English teacher was to “help as many people as you can”. The pair chose literacy as their project.

“Jonathan and Andrew had two separate experiences growing up demonstrating the power of literacy to change a person’s life,” said Wilfong.

Jonathan Wilfong was inspired by a friend from the Amateur Athletic Union who struggled to read. A gifted athlete, his disability would likely hinder his chances of moving on to college. The Wilfong family encouraged the friend to seek tutoring, and by the time by the time he was a freshman in high school, he was reading at a seventh-grade level. 

That outcome is uncommon, according to Coaching for Literacy.

Coaching for Literacy has provided nearly $100,000 to support the work of the Memphis Teacher Residency and STREETS ministries.

“Sixty-four percent of American 4th graders are not reading at grade-level and roughly two-thirds of these students will go on to live on welfare or in jail. This means by 10 years of age, a child’s future is already established for better or worse,” said Coaching for Literacy executive director Ryan Viner

Coaching for Literacy models its revenue model on the PGA Tour's Caddy For a Cure nonprofit. Instead of paying to caddy for a golf luminary, college basketball fans can make a donation to Coaching for Literacy for a spot on players bench during a sponsored game. The proceeds support Coaching for Literacy's education programs.

While Jonathan Renshaw and Andrew Wifong moved on to college, Coaching for Literacy flourished into a national organization.

“Coaching for Literacy has conducted 75 Fight for Literacy games with nearly 40 NCAA partners. This season, 36 NCAA programs are involved in the Fight for Literacy Games initiative. This is an increase from 20 NCAA programs in the prior season,” said Viner.

University of Memphis' game against Louisiana State University on December 28 at the FedEx Forum will be the next Coaching for Literacy-sponsored game. 

Coaches, staff and players will be wearing green ties, lapel pins or wrist bands in recognition of literacy awareness. If allowed by the host program, donations can be made during the game.

Coaches, staff and players will be wearing green ties, lapel pins or wrist bands in recognition of literacy awareness.

“We want America to turn on the TV to their favorite sport, see the color green on a coach or player, and think literacy. We want to be for literacy what the color pink is for breast cancer,” said Wilfong.

Coaching for Literacy's growth has caught the eye of corporate sponsors, too. 

“Coaching for Literacy has activated major sponsorships with C Spire and International Paper via Fight for Literacy Games as well as a strategic branding sponsorship with Peter Millar, the official supplier of the Fight for Literacy apparel line,” said Viner.

National exposure has been a result of the embrace of college basketball. Through the combined generosity of the programs, fans and corporate sponsors, its reach has extended across the country.

“Since 2014, Coaching for Literacy has raised more than $500,000, providing funding support for 50 literacy projects that directly impact 8,000 kids across 11 states and 20 communities,” said Viner.

The program continues to make an impact in its Memphis home base, as well. Nearly $100,000 has been provided to support the work of the Memphis Teacher Residency and STREETS ministries.

Coaching for Literacy has a bullish outlook on the future. By 2020, the organization wants Fight for Literacy games to be hosted by 50 NCAA partners. They are also looking to the NBA for partners.

“We hope to involve 30 NBA players in Fight for Literacy games,” said Viner.

The first NBA partner will be announced soon. The expansion of corporate sponsorships also figure prominently in their 2020 vision.

“We will seek to have a majority of our Fight for Literacy Games sponsored by a corporation. When we accomplish this vision, we will set our 2030 vision to be a part of a collective effort to change the rate of illiteracy in our country,” said Viner.

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