In October, First Book teamed up with Operation Warm and the Chicago Housing Authority to bring new books and new coats to kids living in Chicago’s public housing. The event promised to bring together organizations like First Book and individuals who aim to improve the lives of children and give them the tools they need to create a bright future.
Enter Charlie Brown, retired NFL player and former president of Chicago’s NFL Alumni chapter. Already a great ally of First Book, Charlie hopes to build on the success of October’s event and find new and exciting ways to work with First Book in the future. We were able to have a conversation with Charlie about the Chicago event, his plans, and even one of his favorite books.
First Book: How did you get involved with First Book and Operation Warm?
Charlie Brown: Well I met First Book about a year ago. When we originally met I was president of the NFL alumni Chicago and I was just looking around for people who were doing stuff for kids. I’m an old Boys and Girls Club-er and I run programs with and for kids, besides being an old NFL-er. But I have run programs for kids and I have always held this need to give back and to share because for all intents and purposes I feel like I owe.
Someone mentioned First Book to me so I called them up and I said “who are you guys, what do you do?” Just hearing how they did what they did, that’s how the relationship started.
That was part of my general inquiry and so one thing lead to another and they talked about how they had done this event in Chicago and they were going to do this event again this year. Ten or twenty thousand books going to kids who are also going to get new coats. New books and a new warm coat – not a used coat! A new warm coat that you can put your name in – like this coat belongs to Jamie, you know? That’s a big deal!
FB: To have that ownership, absolutely.
CB: Yeah, the ownership and also it gives you a sense of, “the world cares about me so I can care back.” To see it in action and just to be involved with it was phenomenal.
FB: I know that you were key in recruiting volunteers for that event in October, so tell me a little bit about that process and how it went.
CB: Well, if you’re the president of an organization one thing you need to know is: what are the hot buttons for the members of my group? Guy A may volunteer for one thing and guy B for another. For example, I have a group of guys, we do a 5k in the spring and we do a relay so not one of us old guys has to do the whole thing. We have a great time, it lasts about five hours. But they are a group of guys who I know will come out and do that, so you start to know what kinds of things guys will do.
One of my guys, for example, Major Hazelton – he’s a former Bear but he’s an educator too – so it is not a hard pull to get him to come and do something if it involves kids and education, that’s his angle. And you kind of start to know this and you know where to put guys and sometimes you get a great match and sometimes you get not a great match based on time and emotion and that kind of stuff.
FB: What role do you see the NFL Alumni Association — or some of the smaller chapters — playing with organizations like First Book or Operation Warm?
CB: Well number one, I see us telling the story. I see us being either more or less visible based on the organization’s needs. For example, I did an introduction with the Bears and in part what the introduction says is: it’s no longer an organization to an organization, it’s somebody’s name to somebody’s name. It is a secondary step not a primary step to do that. I see us doing that kind of stuff. Public or private endorsements, our guys are willing to do those kinds of things. I think sometimes we have to look for and create opportunities.
I think I am a connector because I am willing to ask the question and say, “well, why not?” If we can do that and help tell the story, it makes it an even bigger story, particularly if that other organization’s byline is “caring for kids and caring for ourselves.” That’s what the NFL Alumni says and does.
Well, if keeping kids warm ain’t caring for kids, what is? Warm goes right up there with hot dogs and hamburgers. So that’s kind of where I am with all of this, it’s trying to figure out how to help make these connections.
FB: Let me go back to the event in October, what were some of your favorite sights and sounds?
CB: Well it was fun to see kids look at books and watch the expressions on their faces when they choose a book and say, “I’m interested in this, and I don’t know what this is but I am interested in it – I like the cover.” And for the kids to get five books and put them in their bags – there was this sense of satisfaction that you saw when it went from a “maybe to mine.”
That was awesome, because on a good day I am about a five-year-old – the ability to interact with kids and talk to them about what they were thinking and saying and doing and that kind of stuff is always fun for me. On a good day I think I’m about a five-year-old.
FB: Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to keep your inner child!
CB: Right, and that kind of stuff was fun. My most fun activities were interacting with kids and just seeing kids understand that this was their day and this day was for them. That all they had to do to qualify that day was to be a kid and be there. That was enough.
FB: Why do you feel that education is so important for young people?
CB: Education opens you to the world. Think of it this way: if you’ve never seen the Eiffel Tower, but you read about it or you saw pictures of it, you could get a secondary sensation of what that was all about. You would know that that thing is real if you saw it and you understood how the lights came on at night and you could share the experience with someone who’s been there.
On the one hand it is a secondary sharing, but it can also increase aspirations, “you know, I would like to go see the Eiffel Tower,” because I read about it. Reading about it is certainly better than not. Reading allows you to have a new adventure every day if you’re willing to sit down and pick up a book and read it.
FB: So Charlie, what are some of your favorite books?
CB: It is interesting to be a guy so in love with books. My favorite book that I go back to for a whole bunch of guidance and for different reasons is a very small book. It’s a book on life written by former college football coach Bear Bryant and the title of the book is Don’t Play for the Tie. This book is about 130 pages and I use it all the time. For example, I do some public speaking and when I am looking for stuff to share, whatever it is, I will go to this book and what I do is — and this is the strange part — I just open the book at random and 99% of the time I find exactly what I need. And in fact the book was a gift, as crazy as that sounds.
FB: What are your hopes and dreams for the children who you’re able to impact? Either through First Book, Operation Warm, or any of the other organizations you’re involved with?
CB: We have to make sure kids understand that it is safe to dream and that the difference between a goal and dream is a plan. That’s always my hope — that kids understand that their plan doesn’t have to be elaborate, it just has to be clear. And that you have to not be afraid to reach outside of yourself because there is somebody out there who is willing to help if you understand how to present yourself. Those are my dreams, and for them to understand that yeah, I kind of am my brother’s keeper.
If you serve kids in need, please visit the First Book Marketplace to register and browse our collection of diverse, award-winning books and educational resources. If you, like Charlie, want to help First Book make a difference in the lives of children in need, consider starting a First Book campaign to raise funds for educational essentials for schools or programs in your community, or where the need is greatest.