Black History: Chance Wilson with Wilson Global Initiative

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - When 9News caught up with Chance Wilson, he was deboarding from a plane at Baton Rouge Metro Airport after an 11-day trip to Asia.

"Most of the work we do is in Asia," said Wilson. "So, I visited those countries and met with our local partners, our board members in those countries, people who've been helping out."

Chance is 18 years old, a high school senior, and this is a business trip. Wilson is founder and CEO of WGI, Wilson Global Initiative. He was meeting his Asian operatives for the first time in person. He stopped in the airport rotunda to grab a seat and rack open his laptop. As he checked on things, we got a look at Wilson's website, wgihq.org. WGI has reading programs in the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Tanzania, and Indonesia. His trip also included Yokohama and Tokyo, Japan this time.

It all began four years ago in a classroom at Westdale Middle School. Wilson sort of had an experience that changed his life.

"I was in theater class. A teacher named Mr. Howard was one of my favorite teachers of all time and he called on a student next to me to read from a play we were going over. And it was the weirdest thing. The guy couldn't read it! And it wasn't one of those things where he didn't want to. You could tell from the fear on his face that he couldn't read what was on the paper. So, that sparked this curiosity in me. I had thought, like most people, that everyone could read. No one who can't read and write. I read up on literacy and realized, 'Hey look, this is a real issue. This is something serious,'" Wilson explained.

"My first approach is, 'Let's go to the teachers and the principal and the school board member for that district.' What can I do? What can we do together? But I didn't really get much reception. So then, I was like, 'Okay, well, they're not really.' So, maybe I ought to just step out on my own, on my own faith, and try to start something on my own and see what kind of difference I can make," he added.

As luck would have it, WGI started a new literacy program at Winbourne Elementary. Wilson lined up 200 community volunteers to read to classes as part of the big spectacular launch. As he spoke to the entire school gathered that day, he asked, "Who wants to take home candy?" It seemed like the entire school erupted with a giant, "Yes!" Wilson promised them if they did well with their volunteers who had come to read to them, they would get candy.

"We all want a good life, right? 'Yeah,' the students responded. So, that's why reading is important ... for jobs, college, vo-tech, among other things," Wilson said.

At a WGI literacy kickoff, Chance's playbook could be seen in action. Community volunteers from all walks of life dug though files of popular children's books to choose what the kids might like.

"'ABC, Hoppin' the Pop,'" one man said. "'Pepa Pig I love the little kids,'" a woman in a police uniform added.

Some are reading to older kids. A tall man with a resonant voice is reading "The Giving Tree" and paused to get kids' thoughts on how the story was unfolding.

"Boom! Right there. The tree was happy because the kid was happy," the reader smiled broadly.

WAFB's Elizabeth Vowell had them spell-bound.

"Once in a cave, there lived a big ugly monster, possibly the ugliest monster in the world," she read. "And the picture of the monster is about to come out. Be prepared. Are you ready?"

"Yes," the kids answered.

"Ready to see a big ugly monster? Are you sure?" Vowell entreated and with an air of mystery, flipped the page to reveal the "monster."

The kids squealed and giggled.

After the opening day, volunteers are asked to help to pair one-on-one and become teacher and cheerleader for that young person. There are corporate sponsors for WGI who may never have supported a teenager with their money. Chance Wilson somehow won their trust. Wilson also has developed virtuosic skills to run things via internet, social media, and phone apps.

Wilson explained the machinery that makes multi-national organizing work.

"We kind of, through social media and all that, put the word out there. People go to our website and there's a big blue button that says 'Take Action' and they put their contact details in. And then, we put them on a list with their emails and every time we're doing something, they get an email in their in-box like 'Hey look, come out and read with a person or help teach English to a person.' They reply and say, 'I'm there' and they come and they participate," Wilson explained.

Wilson said he devotes about 10 percent of his time to personal things. So, you do occasionally see him acting like a teenager. 9News saw him and five friends at a mall sitting at a table by a fountain. Three were fiddling with their smartphones. All were talking about girls and sports and school.

"I try to set aside time on weekends to hang out with friends. Maybe go to Perkins Rowe or hang out by the levee downtown and really have that balance," Wilson said.

His idea of balance is to dedicate 30 percent of his time to his online high school degree. He'll graduate this May, while spending 60 percent of his time teaching the world to read. He said he'll take a gap year before deciding what his next move will be.

9News hopes to keep track of his next move, too.

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