Rob Shindler believes in second chances. The Chicago-based author and attorney hopes that his book, "Hotdogs & Hamburgers," raises awareness around adult illiteracy and inspires readers to become part of the solution by helping others learn to read. Now a literacy advocate, Shindler and the United Church of Christ are partnering for Reading Changes Lives, the UCC's church-wide initiative to raise awareness about how illiteracy directly impacts a range of social justice issues.
"I sign every book, 'To second chances,'" Shindler said. "Someone wanting to learn to read as an adult is looking for that, a second chance. They're looking for a second chance to find dignity, to read their horoscope, to get a job."
"Hotdogs & Hamburgers" chronicles Shindler's journey to help his son, Oliver, overcome a reading deficiency by volunteering to teach adults how to read. In September, the UCC is featuring Shindler's book in an all-church event, inviting members, congregations, conference and all ministries to join for a denomination-wide reading of "Hotdogs & Hamburgers."
The "One Read" which begins on Sept. 8, 2014, National Literacy Day, is the first event of the UCC initiative, Reading Changes Lives. "Hotdogs & Hamburgers: Unlocking Life's Potential by Inspiring Literacy at Any Age," is currently available with free shipping for $11.99 single copy or $45 for a five-book package from UCC Resources. An eBook is available directly through Amazon, and an audio version of the book will also be made available.
In addition, a free discussion guide and suggested timeline for continuing the literacy initiative into 2015 will be available this summer.
Shindler's story is "one that anyone can relate to," Darlene Collins, national literacy coordinator for the UCC, said of why the church selected his book for the initiative. "We hope that after reading this story, many more people will become aware of the importance of closing the literacy gap and want to get involved as Mr. Shindler has done."
"He underwent a transformation, and like each of us, the average person oftentimes learns of an issue when it hits home, as was the case with Shindler and his son Oliver," said Collins. "The beauty of his story is in his transformation and journey. By trying to help his son, he found a passion to help others, and that passion is passed on to his children.
Shindler's journey began more than a decade ago when Oliver was diagnosed with a learning disability as a preschooler. Oliver had problems learning the alphabet and couldn't pronounce the letters phonetically. He fell behind his classmates. As Shindler put it, "He was stagnant."
So Shindler closed his eyes from reality, and for the first few years of Oliver's educational life, Shindler tried to hide from the fact that his son might be illiterate. When he took himself out of the equation, Shindler's wife, Andi, Oliver's twin sister, Isabella, and his teachers became his support system, helping him work past his learning disability.
"The women of the world, they like to leap, and they like to leap fast," he said. "As a man, we like to cover our eyes and cover our ears. As a dad, to hear my little boy had a disability, I thought, how's he going to get to junior high, through high school, and would he get to go to college?"
It wasn't until someone made a derogatory remark toward Oliver in public that Shindler woke up to face reality. He was determined to see the truth and help his son learn to read, so he worked with Literacy Chicago and became a literacy tutor. He's been doing it now for six years.
"If I can teach someone [who isn't my son] to read, then maybe I can translate that at home with my son," Shindler said.
Oliver is now a teenager thinking about college, while Shindler continues his journey, seeking to make a difference one person at a time.
The Department of Education estimates there are 32 million adults in the U.S. who can't read. That's more people than the population of Texas, Shindler points out.
"When we hear that number, it's daunting," Shindler said. "How can we help? What can I do with 32 million people? Well you can't do something with 32 million people. But you can do something with one. One will lead to two, and two will lead to three."
Shindler owes the title of "Hotdogs & Hamburgers" to a friend named Charles, whom Shindler described as "one of his favorite people on the planet." A traveling salesperson in men's clothing, Charles reads at about a second-grade level. And as he traveled to different parts of the country to sell men's clothing, Charles ordered the same foods whenever he ate at diners: Hotdogs & Hamburgers.
They were the only words he could read on the menu, and he never ventured from them for fear of being discovered as an illiterate adult.
"The way to solve this issue is to impact it, to notice it and acknowledge it and be aware of it," Shindler said. "The greatest thing about this is, you don't need anything. You need two people and your heart."
Two people, an open heart, and a second chance.
Learn more about the Reading Changes Lives literacy initiative at readingchangeslives.org.