Running for reading

While many adults think back fondly to their bedtime stories as a child, Laguna Beach resident Dennis Yang knows firsthand that the experience is far from universal.

Hoping to change that, last year he ran across the country to promote literacy and physical activity. "The Great Reading Run" started in Long Beach on Feb. 10 and ended in Coney Island, N.Y., on July 26.

Yang, 37, is the author of four children's books and founder of the Papa Didos Ideals Foundation.

On Wednesday, Yang read at the Boys & Girls Club in Laguna Beach. He started out with playtime while listening to loud pop music, then cooled down with some Beethoven in the background. Later, he read aloud one of his books.

Papa Didos comes from the name his son, Troy, called him when he couldn't say "dad" or "Dennis." When Yang and his son's mother separated, he wanted something to give him, a way to teach Troy lessons when he wasn't there.

Previously a screenwriter, Yang quickly funneled his creativity into storybook writing. Although four titles have been published, he's completed 110 manuscripts, which he hopes to publish over the next 10 years. Laguna College of Art & Design graduates Rebecca Kramp, Adolph Soliz and Bobby Hernandez illustrated the books.

He's also finished writing an adult novel about his run and his experiences leading up to it.

While volunteering for a religious organization in Hong Kong in 2007, Yang read to prisoners and was moved by their response.

Learning to read restored their confidence, he said.

Many told him the ability to be able to fill out a job application might deter them from returning to crime.

"Illiteracy has a direct correlation with people going to jail," he said.

Rates of illiteracy — and recidivism — are higher among inmates, Yang said.

While running in Irvine one day, Yang decided he wanted to take his message a step further. Literally.

"I didn't want to stop," he said.

He started planning his run across America and began sending books to different locations — orphanages, children's hospitals and public schools — where he intended to stop along the way.

Averaging the length of a marathon a day, Yang faced harsh weather conditions — wind, hail and extreme heat — but lasted the duration without injuries.

He pushed a baby stroller that weighed about 100 pounds in front of him as he ran. It carried camping equipment, food, his laptop, vitamins and other supplies.

One day he got a flat tire on his stroller. He was 20 miles from the nearest town.

People stopped for Yang along the way, including a mayor who invited him to meet his family and gave him a tire, and another woman who took him to her son's home where he spent the night.

Yang said he found Americans' kindness encouraging.

"People just saw you were doing something good and wanted to help you out," he said. "It definitely restored my faith in humanity."

Running groups, church members and other religious groups would join him as he ran.

"You know that we're in a recession, and times seem a little bit darker than before, say, four or five years ago," he said. "People seem less happy. I didn't experience any of that when I was on the road."

However, Yang admitted it wasn't always easy. There were a couple days where he just didn't want to get on his feet again.

"I told myself I can always take one more step, and I knew if I took enough steps I would reach each day's goal," he said. "I just need to get through one more mile."

Yang said his goal was to spread the message of literacy and physical activity in as many places as he could.

He received positive feedback along the way. A teacher told him a child she had never seen read aloud in class, so she promptly volunteered after Yang's visit.

Stories like that keep Yang motivated.

In fact, he wants to start an event for schoolkids called "Million Mile Relay," where they can earn miles by reading and doing physical activity — two miles for reading, one for physical activity. There would be prizes for the kids and the schools that log the most miles.

He's already in talks with the Los Angeles Unified School District about a pilot program.

"I just want to give them the foundations of good habits early," he said. "For lack of a better word, I'm trying to be a good role model."

He's already proven to be an inspiration for one boy: Yang's son has taken such a liking to his father's writing that he's written a book of his own. Yang said it's about robots, dads and fighting.

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