By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Gil Smith knows the trouble children can get into without good guidance. It might be why his favorite book to read to the four-year-olds is the Dr. Seuss classic, “The Cat in the Hat” — the story of two children left alone at home shows when the cat comes and wreaks havoc.
A retired police officer, Smith is a recognizable presence as Channel 4 WJXT’s crime analyst, often analyzing juvenile crime in our city. Behind that serious exterior, Smith is an avid reader who understands the importance of developing children’s early literacy skills.
“I was part of the pioneering group of volunteers with the ReadingPals initiative,” Smith said. He signed up just as United Way’s ReadingPals initiative was taking off.
“Each year is different. The kids bring four different personalities and needs every time. The challenge is finding out what those needs are.”
Volunteering at the Long Branch Elementary Head Start program and Salvation Army’s preschool, he looks to make the children’s learning fun and engaging.
Smith is no stranger to helping children succeed. For more than 20 years, Smith served with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, often trying to keep students out of trouble as either a D.A.R.E. officer or as a school resource officer.
Smith credits the example a Boy Scout leader gave him when he was a child in East Cleveland, Ohio. With little resources to help the boys master camping and survival skills, they were taught to make the most of the few supplies they had and believe in themselves.
“He worked a lot with us,” Smith said. “We’d have second-hand, third-hand tents when we went camping but he’d tell us, no matter what we’re not going back.”
Smith said that when his troop joined hundreds of other scouts at summer jamborees, it would be assumed that the primarily African-American troop from the inner city with inferior equipment would lose the competitions.
“We’d have to light a fire the fastest and burn a string hanging over it,” Smith said. “We’d get it done using only two matches.”
Smith and his troop mates would surprise the other teams with their results often winning the challenges set before them.
“I used those skills later in life. Always be prepared,” Smith said. “I was able to thank him years later.”
When Smith sits down to read and play with his young students, he tries to teach them skills that will help them be prepared for challenges ahead. Their responses, those jumps for joy when he walks into the room, let him know that in between the reading and skill learning, there’s also a lot of love going on.