With a book about longtime New York Yankees icon Derek Jeter in his hand, Waco Fire Marshal Lt. Keith Guillory read to a captivated crowd of South Waco Elementary School Leadership Council students earlier this month.
“What do you think Derek Jeter’s parents told him when he was young?” Guillory, a 13-year Waco Fire Department veteran now working as a fire marshal, asked students.
The fourth- and fifth-graders responded with “work hard,” “set goals” and “have support.” Those qualities are some of the many that helped the baseball superstar find success in his career and life, he said.
Guillory started volunteering with Waco Independent School District about six years ago, encouraging students to find success in reading and academics, areas where he lagged behind at their age.
“Waco has kids in the district that area really struggling, and one of the problems that we’ve had in the program is having enough volunteers to come in and take the time to meet them in those areas,” he said. “It is about walking with people and making a difference.”
For Guillory, a transplant from the inner city of Houston who joined the Waco Fire Department in 2006, education and reading were never a focus at a young age. His mother had him at the age of 15 and allowed him to live with his grandmother when he was starting ninth grade.
When he got to his grandmother’s, Guillory’s struggles with education became apparent, he said.
He was assigned to read “The Scarlet Letter,” and when he brought the book home, he asked his grandmother for help.
“She asked me to start reading out loud to her and she would ask me questions out of it, but I couldn’t get past the first page,” Guillory said. “That’s when she found out. She said, ‘Grandson, you can’t read.’
“Growing up, I was a good kid, so teachers would just give me a 70 and pass me to on to the next grade or place me in the next grade,” Guillory said.
In one night, Guillory’s grandmother read the book to him, cover to cover. The next week, he was given a test over the book and made a B.
“I was extremely proud, but they did end up taking me out of the class,” Guillory said. “But that is what I needed. I needed to know I could do it.”
That turning point prompted Guillory to continue his education and later enroll in a Houston-area fire academy, where he excelled. When he joined the Waco Fire Department, Guillory had the second highest score in his class.
The experience with his grandmother also exemplifies for him the importance of a mentor in a child’s life.
When he moved to Waco, he knew he wanted to encourage students in the local school district. He finds direction in a quote from Cornel West.
“One of my favorite sayings that I like from Cornel West is when he says, ‘You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people,’ ” Guillory said. “You can’t do any of these things if you don’t jump into people’s lives.”
For the last six years, Guillory has joined a score of volunteers who mentor and educate students from elementary school to high school. With encouragement from Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, the volunteer base with the local school district has almost doubled in the last two years, he said.
“There are a lot of academic interventions that teachers and other educators can put in place, but it also makes a difference to make that one-on-one or small-group connection with mentors,” Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said. “Being able to practice reading with someone, for example, with someone who is supportive and there for them.”
By the end of the 2016-17 school year, 1,476 volunteers were working with schools in the district. This year, the district has 2,685 people listed as volunteers.
“I know our students would not be as successful without the incredible volunteers that we have,” DeBeer said. “We’ve seen a dramatic transformation in the last year with six schools that failed to meet state standard, including five that had failed to meet state standards for the last five years, down to just one.
“There are a lot of reasons for that, but one reason is because the community has stepped up to help in a significant way.”
Bettie Beard, founder of the nonprofit Parents Against Crime Coalition, said she knows the importance of volunteer support. Working with Guillory, she and her group encourage students to stay educated and aim to reach parents to help foster an encouraging environment for children.
“Parents against Crime Coalition likes to intervene and focus on young children at an early age, but our families are families with children from 2 to 21 years old,” Beard said. “Children can struggle at any age, and Keith and his wife have a passion in working with these kids.”