barbershop_web.jpgBarber promotes reading among boys
RIVIERA BEACH — Boys don’t come to the Royal Touch Barbershop just to get a haircut; they also come to read. A unique project at the shop owned by Reggie Ross has boys and men reading books on subjects such as culture, getting ahead in life, history, and how to get into college. Twice a month at the two-year-old Riviera Beach barbershop, while little boys wait to get their hair cut, the barbers and volunteers help them select books which they discuss and then read.

Ross, 35, said the idea is to dispel what he calls the myth that black men don’t care and that black males don’t read. “My parents always encouraged reading in my family, so when I opened the barbershop I brought books from home,” Ross said.

The program has since expanded and so has the number books he has in his library. The collection has grown to 70.

“I’m very selective about the books here,” Ross said, showing off a book by retired Gen. Colin Powell. “We emphasize culture and broadening their horizons – books that are going to help them to get ahead in life.”

Ross has parents bring their boys to the shop and they read from his collection. For the very young, he has illustrated books – anything, as long as they read.

“We select a book then we ask the kids what they think the book is about and that sparks their creativity,” Ross said.

After the discussion about the book, they start reading. Sometimes the men read to the boys, sometimes the boys read by themselves.

The program has expanded to include vocabulary building. “If they want to play a movie or listen to music while here, they have to give me their vocabulary word and the definition first,” Ross says.

He started the vocabulary program because of 12-year-old Willie O’Neal, a Howell L. Watkins Middle School student who got into an argument with a cousin.

“I tell them the reason they fight is because they don’t have enough words [to express themselves]. If you talk to some of these kids, they’re some of the brightest kids that ever lived. Some of them are just not exposed to much,” Ross said. He assigned them a word and told them he wanted the definition when they returned again to the barbershop.

The barbershop reading program has caught the attention of the School District of Palm Beach County and is the subject of a video made by the Superintendent’s Graduation Task Force for Black Males as an example of how black males are helping to make a dent in the low graduation rate of black boys. The rate in Palm Beach County is 47.9 percent, according to the school district.

Myra Leavy-Bazemore, manager of the African, African American, Latino and Gender Studies for the school district, said Ross’ program is a welcome asset for the group and the community as a whole.

“It turns into a literacy exchange. The focus is on black men helping black boys read. It’s a tremendously effective program,” Leavy-Bazemore said. 

Renesha Allen agrees. The 28-year-old Palm Beach Gardens resident also sees the program as a boost not only to students but also the community. Her sons Donald Burney Jr. 7, and Dylan, 2, are in Ross’ barbershop initiative.

“I think it’s a very good program,” Allen said. “It builds up our black children but it also builds up the black community.”

Others are also fans of the program.

Curtis Washington Sr. of Riviera Beach said it is an asset to his son Curtis Jr., 6. “The program is great,” he said. “For him to learn about his culture and heritage is excellent.”

Kat Carter, 42, a Royal Touch barber who lives in West Palm Beach, added, “I think it’s necessary. The kids these days have a lot of negative influences. I think they need positive influences such as this. This is continued education for them.