WITS is proud to honor Jamie Garard, III with the Alter & Stone Outstanding Volunteer Award at this year’s Blackboard Affair. “Mr. Jamie,” as many students fondly referred to him, was a dedicated WITS literacy mentor at Peabody Elementary School and served in leadership roles on the WITS Board of Directors. Today, Jamie sits on WITS’ Emeritus Board. Below, Jamie shares about his involvement with WITS, favorite memories, and advice for WITS students.
When and how did you become involved with WITS?
About 15 years ago, my father, Jim Garard, Jr., shared a story about a boy who participated in the WITS program at Morgan Stanley (then Smith Barney) with his good friend, WITS board member, Roger Carlson. After the school year and the WITS program concluded, this boy decided to ride his bike from the southside to Morgan Stanley’s downtown office. When he arrived, the guard called Roger down, who was surprised to see the student. He asked what the student was doing there and reminded him that the WITS program had ended, to which the boy said, “I know, but I still want to read.” For a student, who was maybe 10 years old, to ride his bicycle downtown on his own because he wanted to continue the WITS relationship inspired me to get involved as a volunteer. The following fall, I began volunteering with WITS at another Morgan Stanley office across from Northwestern Mutual with a colleague from my office.
In 2002, Ginny and Roger Carlson organized a benefit wine dinner at WITS founder Marion Stone’s house with Charlie Trotter and Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards. Dick did not keep any of his old wines, but I happened have a collection of his library wines that I donated. I got my dad to also donate wine and invited other friends to come. The evening did not disappoint and became the model for raising money. Afterwards, Roger and Ginny asked me to join the WITS Board of Directors, which I observed for a year before being voted on. Eventually, I rose to Vice President. With current WITS Chairman, Phil Hildebrandt, I led the process that brought Brenda Langstraat to the Chief Executive Officer position at WITS. She was the first person we talked with and we knew after she left that she was the one.
We did wine dinners with Charlie Trotter and Dick Grace on four or five occasions over seven years until the economic recession of 2007. After that, my wife, Linda, and I broke off and started hosting dinners on our own, which we call Grapes for Great Causes. We did an event at Goosefoot that had 25 attendees and raised $50,000, which we ended up surprising Brenda and WITS with. At the time she was working with an Alderman to launch a program in Englewood to train and involve community members as tutors for students. With the gift she was able to fund and double the reach of the pilot program.
Our last wine dinner, that occurred just recently, was to complement this year’s WITS Blackboard Affair at which I am being honored with the Alter & Stone Outstanding Volunteer Award. A highlight of the dinner was sharing that all donations were in support WITS’ early literacy programming, and outlining the research that emphasizes the importance of students learning to read. I shared a story of a time when I was asked to go to a WITS school on the southwest side to help hand out book bags to students to read over the summer. At the assembly, the principal asked the students if they could guess what was in the bags. One young girl in the first row excitedly answered “Pencils!” which the principal responded “no,” before a next student answered “books!” Yes, summer books! While Linda and I were in the car coming home, it really struck us that while we might take a pencil for granted, to young children it is a treasure. So, we immediately wrote a check to get pencils for WITS to give to students. I related this story and asked everybody in the room to raise their hand if they would be willing to donate to bring more pencils to students. Everybody raised their hand. Afterwards, I acknowledged the support of my friends who were bubbling to support such a great cause.
Before the event, I decided that we would raise $100,000 for WITS, which I am proud to say through the generosity of friends and family we are expecting to exceed. Considering the early dinners that Linda and I have been involved with and what we’ve been doing since, we are proud to have raised nearly $1,000,000 for Chicago charities over the course of 15 years.
Why is the work of WITS important to you?
I was a terrible reader growing up. I was very distracted and struggled with retention. I got by reading minimal amounts and I had to work on it later in life. WITS really hits a core piece of me by helping children learn to read early. Because I was not a good reader, I feel it is important to give back. I know that if we can get students to read early, they can become passionate, increase their knowledge, and then participate in our economy. I often say to my friends, ‘if we don’t support young children, there won’t be anyone to keep the economy going and take care of us as we get older.’
What is one of your favorite memories with WITS?
My favorite WITS memory was working with a young man named Isidro Gonzalez. I worked with Isidro in third and fourth grade, and then, because his grandmother was the school chaperone for WITS, we got to work together for an extra year while he was in fifth grade. I talked with Isidro’s then Principal, Fred Flores, and said that I’d like to be there when he graduates. He did one better and asked me to speak during his 8th grade graduation. I put together a short speech, that Fred helped translate into Spanish, in which I commended the students and thanked the parents. For parents to take time out of their busy schedules to allow students like Isidro and many others to stay after school and participate in programs to improve reading is very important because it allows them to step forward. In Isidro’s case then, it was graduating 8th grade and becoming a freshman in high school. We stayed in touch through his freshman year until he and his family moved. Working with Isidro and helping his reading progress was very rewarding to me.
What piece of advice would you give to WITS students?
Ask your WITS mentor as many questions as necessary. Never feel as though the question you’re going to ask is the stupid one, because the only stupid questions are the ones that are never asked. They’re there to help and they’re as enthusiastic about helping you learn as you are enthusiastic about learning.
Interview by Eric Coleman, Development & Communications Manager