..Lese Dunton..

An Interview with Ron Galotti

Lese Dunton: It was so great to see the kids motivated and thinking and asking good questions.

Ron Galotti: I was absolutely overwhelmed and surprised by how focused the kids are and how much energy they have. The innocence that still seems to be in that sparkle in their eyes. I didn't expect to see it.

LD: And I think that needs to be reported more because that's also a reality.

RG: Well you know what? I don't know you, but I'll give you Ron's version for a second.

I'm like the white guy in the business suit, standing there, and there's an impression of who you are that the kids kind of get, just by what you appear to look like. And conversely, I never went to an inner city school so I had my own impression of what I thought it looked like.

I grew up in a very poor, very loving, environment. I had three siblings and a mom. My dad died when I was nine. My mom worked at a retail store. Kids don't know -- I'm 52 now -- kids don't know at that age...I never knew we didn't have money. I just knew my mother loved us. But it's just a whole interesting dynamic that I see in the kids and in the schools.

The schools are run much more effectively than I thought they were. They're far cleaner and more presentable. The faculty is much more involved. Now I know I'm getting a bit of a better showing because we're there, and the Chancellor's office has orchestrated it and all, but you know what?

The teachers are much more fluent, much more familiar, much more on top of the game with these kids than I ever thought they would be. I was impressed.

I brought a class down from IS145 (in the Bronx) to my office to give them a sense of what we do. Versus me just going to their school. I had my daughter in with me, who's two years old, and I kept her with me most of the morning when they were here. When they left, all these kids remembered my daughter's name and said goodbye to her. I was just absolutely, unbelievably impressed with the attention and interest, just all of it.

You know what? It was just an eye-opener for me. I think it's just wonderful to contribute. I'd love to do more of it. Lisa Dallos is very cautious because, she knows me, I'll be offering stuff and it'll cost us a fortune! But I think it's great. I think it's fantastic. And bringing in Tiki Barber and Russell Simmons is great because the kids get a chance to see people of color who have, in fact, succeeded against adverse realities.

I was there with Russell Simmons, because he's an old friend of mine. He puts it into a language that's familiar to them so they understand.

LD: It gets their minds open right away.

RG: Yeah, you just see that "Wow." It's fantastic.

And if you touch one -- if you make a difference to one kid -- how wonderful.

LD: Also that one kid will say, "Hey, it was really great. You should have been there," or whatever.

RG: Absolutely. It's so simple. It's so complicated but yet so simple.

LD: How did you come up with the idea? Also, what's the "Pencil Program"?

RG: The Pencil Program is "Principal for a Day." That's where I originally started into this. I don't want to speak for Pencil, but this is my understanding: It's an organization that was founded a few years ago and it takes people in prominent positions -- in business or in a celebrity status -- wherever they can. Then they assign you to a school and you're principal for a day. You go in and you interface with the principal, and you talk to the kids. I did that a couple of months ago. It was the first time that we did it.

We have this children's book, Artemis Fowl, so while we were there we were doing the movie Spy Kids. That's my partner's movie, Miramax Dimension, part of Disney. I brought a bunch of books with me. I brought the Spy Kids books and Artemis Fowl. We are turning Artemis Fowl into a movie also. Part of the process in reading the book is if you crack the code, you can win a chance to get a walk-on part..

Of course, all these kids are unbelievably fascinated, and wanting to do anything to be involved in the movies, meet celebrities. Normal kid stuff. Of course! We got back to the office and we were thinking about it and I said, "Geez, how do we get more books into the hands of the schools?" The libraries seem to be, not deficient, but the basic need that they tell you they have is for more computers, more books, more specific items like that.

But I said, wow, I don't have computers because that's not my business, but what about if I brought in Eoin Colfer, who wrote Artemis Fowl and has written seven other books...and he actually was a teacher in Ireland. It also gives the students a kind of cross-cultural experience because his reference is so different. This is a real Irish guy. Oh, you were there! You saw Eoin. I'm sorry...

LD: I thought the combination of Eoin and Tiki Barber was perfect.

RG: Like bookends, right?

LD: Yeah. I liked when Eoin said, you know, it's lonely at times, being a writer, and it takes work and dedication. So, if there were kids in the audience that maybe didn't want to be a writer, then there's an athlete they can identify with also. So you have both ends of the experience. But the message was basically the same: pick your passion and go for it.

RG: Lisa explained to me that Tiki was a very bright, articulate person. So they also saw that it wasn't about some dumb jock. That academic achievement is part of what it takes to be able to do what he does.

So, I thought it would be fun to bring Eoin in as sort of a follow up, donate books to the school, let them read, and just kind of participate and see if we can do more. One thing will lead to another.

I tried to stand back a bit because they'd much rather hear from Eoin and the guest speaker, which is the purpose of the gathering. At previous incidents, I was out front as kind of the spokesperson. The principal had said, "I'd like you to come back and do this again." I was like, "Sure." Lisa saw me and was petrified that I'm going to spend every day doing this, which I'd prefer to do.

Lisa Dallos: In addition to supplying books to the three schools that we went to -- that were selected by the Chancellor's office -- we sent two books with a note from Tina Brown and Ron, to every middle school library in New York City. We've been getting thank-you letters from a lot of these schools.

LD: So everyone benefits greatly. The schools, the kids, the author, the guest speakers, you guys. Everybody benefits in a variety of good ways.

RG: It's a win-win situation. You know if more companies sat down and kind of thought through how they might contribute, it would be good. If it's technology, they should set up sessions where they bring in computer specialists and show the kids how to use the state-of-the-art equipment.

Everybody can do something. I'm thrilled to have had a chance.

LD: What do you have upcoming? What will you be doing next along these lines?

RG: I don't know. I'm sure we'll follow up with another Spy Kids. We're going take the Spy Kids books and kind of do a Hardy Boys series out of it because the characters lend themselves to that. So, as we develop the series on Spy Kids we'll probably go back to the schools with that.

Our book publishing company is not specific in either children's, adult fiction, or non-fiction -- we really select product based on what we feel fits for a multitude of reasons. So I'm sure we will have other areas. Eoin's done this book for us and it's successful and he'll come back with a sequel to it. That's our intent. I'll participate in the Pencil Program next year, unquestionably.

Lisa Dallos: And we'll stay in touch with the Chancellor's office. There are a lot of ideas that are percolating.

RG: There's not enough you can do. It all starts with the kids. If I can help get that message out to more people, it would be great.

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