By Tate Samata

Laughter and cheers reverberated inside the Austin neighborhood’s By The Hand Club For Kids Thursday in celebration of an unlikely cause – reading.

About 100 exuberant 1st through 6th grade kids from all five By The Hand Club centers competed at the annual reading playoff, Aug. 11, at By The Hand Club, 415 N. Laramie Ave., Chicago.

Though the kids showed up with light hearts and warm smiles, this day was no joke; they had been preparing tirelessly all summer.

The kids spent their summer immersed in The Space Mission Adventure by Sharon M. Draper, an inspirational chapter book about four African American children who attend Space Camp and are determined to travel to outer space.

The highly anticipated team vs. team elimination playoff put their reading comprehension skills to the test.

The day began with an eruption of team chants and drum rolls and ended with one of the eight participating teams earning the highly sought after prize—Chicago Bulls tickets—by answering questions, proving their exceptional knowledge of the book’s contents.

Between the glow sticks, colored balloons, beach volleyballs and surprise dance breaks, fun was inevitable—and had by all.

This event marked the culmination of By The Hand Club’s summer reading program.

The importance of the program, as Executive Director Donnita Travis put it, lies in the proven fact that building reading skills in early childhood is the number one predictor of a child’s future success.

Kids who previously had never read a book cover to cover, left the playoffs energized and eager to read again.

This is the essence of By The Hand Club’s brilliance – it’s mastered the art of making education appealing. Learning here is not a chore, but an opportunity that’s desired. The reading playoff was no exception.

Neveah, an 11-year-old, said the playoff inspired her to keep reading consistently. She now wants to go to Space Camp, as portrayed in the book, and some day reach the moon.

Another fifth grader, Dangelo, who’s already three years ahead of his age group’s reading level, said he loves to read more than ever.

Just as obvious as their love for reading was the love they have for each other. Every interaction was kind and respectful despite the high stakes. The losing teams were respectfully solemn and the winning team was humble.

“We treat our brothers and sisters nicely here. When somebody loses we always cheer,” said Maliyah, age 7.

Again, By The Hand Club has done what it does best – instilling invaluable life skills and kindness in the hearts of young children from the inner city.

Don’t just take it from me. Ask Neveah, who despite being born in one of Chicago’s most under-resourced neighborhoods, believes without hesitation that one day she’ll walk on the moon. Ask Dangelo, Maliyah or any of the hundreds of children who refuse to let their circumstances define them.

Reading is only one piece of the puzzle. The kids at By The Hand are ready and eager for what lies head.

By The Hand Club For Kids is a not-for-profit after-school program that serves 1,300 children in five centers in Cabrini-Green, Austin, Englewood and Altgeld-Gardens.

Tate Samata is a photo journalist studying at the University of Montana.