Courtesy Anderson Sainci
Andrea Billups
August 18, 2015 09:35 AM

An Iowa barber has found a way to turn back-to-school haircuts into an educational experience.

Courtney Holmes makes sure his young sons, Jackson and Josiah, are read to every night before bed. But the Chicago native, 45, also knows that many children don’t get the same encouragement.

To shine a spotlight on literacy, Holmes is trading a haircut in his chair at the Spark Salon in Dubuque, Iowa, to boys and girls who are willing to read aloud to him while he shapes and trims.

His novel exchange, a story for a free cut, stemmed from a community-sponsored back-to-school event where Holmes and his scissors proved popular with children who stood in line eager to crack a book for a fresh new look.

He cut hair for four hours straight at the event, handing out his card as a coupon for those who didn’t get a chance in his chair. “Come to the salon and read to me,” he promised the little ones, “and the cut is free.”

“I think a lot of parents realize that literacy is important, but I don’t think they are actually doing that in their homes, reading with their children,” Holmes tells PEOPLE. “With me giving out free haircuts, it gives me a chance to say, ‘Hey, you need to pick up a book and read it and we can help you if you need it.’ ”

He adds: “This is one small way that we can start something – to reach out to parents and let them know the importance of reading and making sure kids get the knowledge they need so that they don’t have to struggle through school.”

The statistics are stark, says Corrine Kroger, who coordinates the Every Child, Every Promise initiative at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, where reading at grade-level is a key goal.

“Based on statistics and data, we know that 74 percent of kids who fall behind in reading by end of third grade don’t finish high school,” Kroger tells PEOPLE. “The criminal justice system bases their prison rates on third-grade reading scores.”

Kroger says the event demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking for an important cause.

“It was fun for the kids who were in attendance. They were able to read to the barber, and with the little ones, he would take breaks between each haircut and he’d help them if they were stuck on a word,” she says. “I think this shows that whether you are a teacher in a school or not, people in our community can still have an impact on learning.”

Anderson Sainci, who coordinated the school event on behalf of the city and conceived the cuts for books idea, praised Holmes for his generosity of spirit and investment in underprivileged youth.

“Our goal is to help change the narrative for low income and particularly people of color,” Sainci says, emphasizing the importance of showing families there are plenty of local resources available.

“We try to reach back out in our community and show there is a way to be successful,” he adds.

Holmes, who learned to read in the Baptist church where his father was a deacon, said his salon owner wants to continue the haircut and reading event once a month. While he brings in books for kids from home, they are also getting more offers of donations from people in the city who learn about the idea and want to help.

Holmes, who calls himself “a big kid,” says it brings joy to listen to children and offer help with tough words. He also likes to question them to make sure they comprehend what they are reading.

“The community is really feeling it. Everybody is excited about it. We want to make sure we keep doing this,” says Holmes, who moved with his wife Sara to Dubuque from Chicago a year ago.

He said he also feels responsible for giving back.

“Kids are our future. But I’m worried about kids today. Many are not involved in something positive. If there is anything I can do to reach out them, to get them away from the negative – the bullying, the trying to be cool, the rap thing, trying to imitate that – I’ll do it,” says Holmes, who is also a member of Duboque’s Black Men Coalition.

“There’s a lot going on in the world. But it only takes one person to change something. I am just trying to make a difference,” he says.

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