A reach beyond imagination

2003 alumnus Mark Hecker's idea to take on youth literacy led to a nonprofit that's boosting students, academically and personally.
March 6, 2017

Mark Hecker ’03 takes the same approach every time. He shows up in front of a D.C. public high school, out-of-place in well-worn jeans and a T-shirt, or maybe a long-sleeve dress shirt with a very adult collar, carrying a homemade sign, looking like a protester.

This look is calculated. Here’s this short, thirty-five-year-old white guy, standing outside a majority black public school, holding a poster-size sign, and smiling. Strange. Except the sign he’s holding attracts a crowd like McDonald’s golden arches.“Do you want a job?” the bold black ink on the white poster board reads.

For many of these teenagers, and others like them in this city, the answer is likely yes. What’s the job, they want to know. How much are they paying? Is this guy for real?

Hecker—who maintains composure through every awkward handshake—explains why he’s holding the sign and what the job entails. He’s for real. If they qualify, he tells them, just fill out this form and return it. “You get them to slow down long enough to have a conversation,” says Hecker, founder and executive director of Reach Incorporated, an acclaimed nonprofit program that pays high-school students to tutor elementary students in reading.

Hecker works hard to get them to stop. He sells his product. He’s looking for ninth- and tenth-graders, he explains, no work experience necessary. His energy is consistent, his words encouraging and clear, never condescending or belittling.

His spiel attracts both boys and girls. Girls say they are good with kids. Boys say they want the money. Ultimately, he will decide if they are invited to participate.

Hecker says he’s looking for the outlier, the underachieving student with potential hidden by attitude and perceived difficulty. He’s looking for those students who’ve challenged teachers and worried parents. He’s looking for those who’ve been bruised by trauma. He’s looking for those students who’ve managed to stay in school yet haven’t reached their greatest potential.

So far, he’s found nearly a thousand of them.

“MR. MARK,” as his students call him, created Reach Incorporated, now in its seventh year, to help where he noticed the system had failed.

After graduating from Duke, where he majored in psychology, Hecker completed graduate studies at the University of North Carolina, earning a master’s degree in social work, then went to work for The National Center for Children and Families.

There, he was assigned general family casework, replete with the strife and turmoil that comes with directing displaced families. He worked daily with children confounded by the sluggishness and inadequacies of the system— social, educational, or legal. He watched as children fell behind in school and then were treated, he says, as “idiots” because their lives prevented them from succeeding. He watched as children fell through the cracks, despite diligent efforts from concerned adults. There were never enough resources or time. He only had two hands.

Secretly, he began developing a plan to address one of the many problems children faced. He would not change the entire system for everyone. He would not solve every problem. Who could?

But he could create a program that addressed youth literacy. The educational system was not designed to help many students catch up once they fell behind. He needed to answer the question, how do you catch up? If you’re fifteen years old and reading at a fourth-grade level, how do you catch up?

Then there was the problem of fighting stigmas. If students needed to start with fourth-grade books, how do you get them to read them without creating tension in the classroom? Hecker quit his job in search of the answers.

His gut told him to trust the children he wanted to help. He had worked with so many kids with varied backgrounds, and he felt they all wanted to succeed, despite their circumstances. So he thought about pairing older students with younger students. His program would target just the tutor and the student getting help with reading. He would target students who had been failed by the system in some way.

He got a job in education, teaching math, science, English, and history in a one-room school to students in the sixth through twelfth grades. He worked with youth transitioning from prison. He experimented with his idea. “Just to see if it worked,” Hecker says. “I discovered pretty quickly that it was a good tool in energizing students who aren’t usually energized.”

The entire idea revolved around giving teens the opportunity to be seen. “They feel important,” Hecker says. “If you don’t feel like you can make a difference in the world, you’re not going to try. When you’re able to see that people depend on you and your actions matter, it’s really a strong motivator.”

MYLIA HEADSPETH, a high-school senior at Capital City, walked out of school one spring day in 2013, as a freshman, and noticed Hecker’s sign. She sped over to him. “It was so out there and blatantly honest,” she says. “I was like, ‘I respect that.’ ” After helping Hecker pronounce her name, she applied, was accepted, and started her first job.

No one prepared Headspeth for what came next. At that time, she earned decent grades but was known for a sassy attitude with teachers and students. She was trying to change her reputation, make something of herself, maybe one day go to college, and change life for her family. Now she would be earning $100 per month tax-free. “It was so beautiful,” she says.

Until it wasn’t beautiful at all. It started when Reach introduced Headspeth to a spitfire second-grader named Taylor, whose wisecracking, stubborn personality reminded her of herself. For several days per week, over the course of several months, the task at hand was to help Taylor read a variety of material. After school, they linked for one-on-one tutoring. They sounded out small words. They spelled out big words. They stared at each other. She tickled the little girl to wake her up. She fussed with her to keep still. But they both experienced a breakthrough.

Eventually, they grew as readers. And something else happened: They developed skills they never imagined.

Headspeth, a college-bound senior, tackled her anger-management issues, her level of professionalism deepening every year she remained in the program. Her overall behavioral issues dissipated. That, Hecker says, happens with experience, exposure, and opportunity, all provided to students who participate in Reach Incorporated programs.

Reach helped Headspeth see her bright future by providing several opportunities for her to visit colleges. In her mind, pictures lie, so seeing, firsthand, campuses like Morgan State University validated the talk. “It’s opened my eyes,” she says.

Hecker, who develops personal relationships with each student, taught Headspeth a few things, too. She noticed his firm handshake the first day she met him. He looked her directly in the eyes and acknowledged her presence. He taught her his secret shake, and that, combined with her newfound confidence, has her prepared for what the world brings next. “Now I break hands,” she says proudly.

SCOTT HECKER recognizes his younger brother’s motivation from a loss that defined their teenage lives. Their father, Andrew, died at fifty, from cancer. He sees his brother’s devotion to others, especially children, as a way to honor their father, who lived by the same code.

The three brothers, including youngest Brian, thirty-two, grew up in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, where they were sportsmen who tried their hand at everything. Mark excelled at swimming and water polo. He was solid at baseball, and in basketball had an ugly, flat jump shot that always fell through the hoop. He also possessed a wonderful singing voice and played guitar. Not long ago, his brother tried to get him to try out for American Idol.

Their father was a lawyer by day and a volunteer by night. Andrew Hecker started his own firm in the late 1970s, and it grew in success and stature. The elder Hecker remained active at church and advised youth groups. He especially loved the arts, where he worked with theater groups and designed sets.

Moreover, if Andrew Hecker could help, most often he did. His example rubbed off on Mark, who in high school volunteered to work with at-risk youth. Mark also served as a swim coach for a local team.

Mark was thirteen when his father died. Before he did, Mark took over at home. He cleaned and packed his father’s surgical wounds and helped him function. After his father died, Mark, still in middle school, started raising money for cancer research. By the time he reached high school, Mark was holding parties and a silent auction, enlisting local sports teams and a variety of organizations, all to raise funds for research.

“He’s not just going to sit there and sulk,” says Scott Hecker. “He finds a way to contribute and take action. Instead of not changing the situation, seeing something not right or not working, he’s going to address it.”

WHEN HECKER QUIT his job as a social worker, his biggest supporter was Lanae Holmes, his boss. She encouraged him to follow his dreams, execute his plans, and excel at Harvard University, where he pursued a master’s degree focusing on school leadership. Hecker had shared his idea, and she thought his practical, passionate approach would work. “I knew something good was going to come out of that,” Holmes says. She thought, this is so simple but it just might work.

She had come to know Hecker as cool-headed, someone who never got overwhelmed by the needs of his clients. He never felt sorry for children. Despite their deficiencies and deficits, he’d pick out the special things about each child and celebrate those. Then he’d figure out what the child needed to make the next step.

That attention to detail remains. Pamphlets about Reach Incorporated are adorned with the slogan “Confident Readers, Capable Leaders.”

These days the company has six full-time employees and is located in a one-floor office about ten blocks from the Capitol. In its seventh year, Reach has nearly 400 kids participating each year across eight sites around the city. The overall concept has been refined as new groups of teenagers tutor elementary-age children. With each new cohort, the staff has tweaked the curriculum to match the needs of the youth. Last year, the program experienced its largest growth with 100 additional students joining.

Back in 2010, there were forty students enrolled. The goal is 500 by late 2017. Among the highschool students who have mentored youth, fifty program graduates have been accepted into college. Internally, employees speak modestly of their success. Outsiders have started to notice.

In 2015, the National Book Foundation awarded the program its Innovations in Reading Prize. The list of accolades has piled high over the years.

Holmes agreed to join Reach’s board of directors and signed the organization’s nonprofit paperwork to become incorporated. Along with Hecker’s family, friends, and supporters, she spent hours in his brother’s basement helping Mark create a business model.

Hecker pitched Reach Incorporated to city officials, corporate executives, teachers, counselors, principals, and whoever else would listen. In the program’s first year, he cultivated relationships that have since paid dividends. He had to capture the minds of those who couldn’t understand the concept. It took months. He felt the pressure as he constructed his business from scratch. There were many fifteen-hour days, reading manuals, placing calls, requesting book donations, and soliciting financial support.

The hardest part, of course, was raising money. That’s become a little easier as the program has been recognized for its success. AT&T awarded the program a $90,000 grant last year. It’s one sign to Hecker that people are finally paying attention.

“Credibility matters for us,” he says. “You have to have some substance to pass muster” with an organization like AT&T.

IT’S PAYDAY on this recent winter night in February, and Mr. Mark has arrived at Beacon House on the northeast side of the city. In a back room, teen tutors and elementary-age students close the evening session with “shout-outs.”

They go around a circle and acknowledge the efforts of participants that day. The young thank the old, and vice versa. Their energy is high and their laughter contagious. Hecker can’t help but smile. He seems to know most of the students. But there are some new faces. Eventually, he’s introduced to one elementary- age student holding a medal in his hand.

“What did you get the medal for?” Hecker asks.

“I got straight A’s,” the boy says.

“Get out of here,” Hecker says.

The young man proudly nods his head up and down.

Hecker congratulates him. He then shakes hands with identical twin brothers Kairea and Kairon Cunningham, both seventeen-year-old juniors. Kairea, a third-year tutor, hands Hecker a local college brochure and remarks about the scholarship offered to students who achieve a 3.7 grade-point average or better.

This is new territory for him, but the program has taught him to be a more efficient student, to stay on task. College is no longer an unimaginable destination. This program, he says, has changed his life.

“Mr. Mark is spectacular,” Kairea says. “He’s a real great boss. He just puts smiles on people’s faces, even when they are down.”

Kairea shakes hands with the boss and accepts his check.

“It’s good earning my own money,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I think about what the kids take back to school. It’s important.”

Robinson is a former sports reporter for The News and Observer in Raleigh and a lecturer at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He lives in Washington, D.C.