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Chicago Bear Garza joins United Way to promote literacy

Three-year-old Connor Doyle hides beside his sister Makennas they meet Chicago Bear RoberGarza. The Doyles wdrawing ride Raging Bull with

Three-year-old Connor Doyle hides beside his sister, Makenna, as they meet Chicago Bear Roberto Garza. The Doyles won a drawing to ride the Raging Bull with Garza, a spokesman for the United Way of Lake County's "Page it Forward" literacy campaign. | Dan Moran ~ Sun-Times Media

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How to join Team Garza

Lake County residents interested in signing up for his current program can do so online at www.unitedway.org/teamgarza. By providing an email contact, participants will be sent a list of volunteer opportunities in their area that take place year-round.

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Updated: August 21, 2013 2:43AM



Early arrivals at Six Flags Great America might have been surprised to see a real, live Bear signing autographs at the entrance on Friday, June 21, but offensive lineman Roberto Garza said he was just returning a favor he received while growing up in Rio Hondo, Texas.

“People showed me the importance of staying in school, so for me, anytime I get the chance to go out in the community and read to the kids and show them the importance of reading, I think it’s important,” said Garza, who was promoting the United Way of Lake County’s “Page it Forward” literacy campaign.

The veteran of 178 NFL games with the Bears and Atlanta Falcons inked his signature and posed for photos with all comers, and participants were invited to sign up for for volunteer opportunities that include sharing books with children who struggle with reading skills.

Garza noted that, according to United Way surveys, less than 50 percent of children in Lake County are able to read at a third-grade level, a grade that hits home for him.

“Education was very big in my house because both of my parents had to drop out at the third-grade level,” he said. “They were born and raised in Mexico, so my mom had to take care of her family and my dad was put to work. So they knew the importance of us staying in school and helping us get our education.

“There was a very big emphasis (on reading), and I had mentors. I had people in the community who looked out for me and gave me the direction of staying in school, going to college and pursuing my dreams through education.”

United Way of Lake County spokeswoman Valerie Petersen said a “Team Garza” wing of the literacy project is looking to sign up 1,500 volunteers by the end of the year to mentor students in reading at area schools and agencies.

“It’s an effort to reduce the dropout rate nationally and specifically here in Lake County,” Petersen said. “Across the nation, we’re doing an initiative called ‘Team NFL,’ and each local team has a spokesperson who’s taking on the literacy efforts, and for us, Roberto stepped up to the plate. We were so thrilled to have him.”

Garza has visited several area schools in recent years to read books with children, including stops at Clearview Elementary in Waukegan and Neal Math & Science Academy in North Chicago.

“A huge issue during the summer is what they call ‘summer slide,’ where kids aren’t reading as much as they do during the school year,” Peterson said. “So it’s definitely a key time for people to step up and volunteer, but we’re recruiting volunteers throughout the whole community through the end of the year and next year. Education has no off-season.”

Also parked outside Great America’s gates on Friday were United Way bins to collect new and used books for the literacy campaign. Throughout the project, books can be dropped off at United Way offices and at stand-alone Starbucks outlets.

Petersen noted that June 21 was a National Day of Action for the United Way, saying “it’s the longest day of the year, so we’re encouraging people to use that extra time to sign up and be a volunteer and make an impact in the community.”



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