For the past eight-plus years, Wednesday mornings have served an instrumental purpose for retired hand surgeon, Dr. Fred Kessler.
On these mornings, Kessler shares his love for reading with middle school students, while also learning something from them.
“I think everyone strives for something in their life that gives them satisfaction by being gratifying, and is helpful to others,” Kessler said.
After a successful 46-year career as a hand surgeon working at CHI St. Luke’s Health (formerly St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital) and Texas Children’s Hospital, Kessler retired from his profession in 2008 and today dedicates a majority of his efforts to volunteering and giving back to his community.
One day of the week he can be found serving as a docent at Holocaust Museum Houston. On a different day of the week, one may spot him teaching reading to adults with the Harris County Department of Education. And on Wednesdays, he works one-on-one with select students at KIPP Liberation College Prep, attempting to improve their reading skills and build interpersonal connections.
“When he comes here, he’s ready to help KIPPsters,” KIPP Liberation eighth-grader Jose Miranda said. “He’s always worked hard for every KIPPster that’s really wanted help.”
A HELPING HAND
Helping is part of Kessler’s DNA and he admits that his personality is ultimately what led him to becoming a hand surgeon.
“I like being given a problem, taking care of it, and moving onto the next task,” Kessler said.
As far as where his interest in reading originated, everything in Kessler’s life has revolved around reading.
“Stick any book in front of me that has to do with history or history of religion, and it’s my favorite book,” Kessler said. “Reading is important. It’s enjoyable. The world has changed, but you still have to be able to read.”
During his final years as a hand surgeon, the flow through Kessler’s office slowed. Puzzled at the reasoning, he began to notice a number of his patients sitting longer than normal in the waiting room and hardly being called into treatment rooms.
“Patients had to start filling out HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) forms and I learned a large number of them couldn’t read well enough to fill them out,” Kessler said. “My office personnel were having to spend time helping them. I said, ‘what is all this about? Everyone knows how to read!’”
At that point, Kessler figured it’d be wise to do some research on reading. And through his findings, he came to learn that roughly 30 percent of the population is functionally illiterate.
The percentage surprised him and he was inspired to take action by signing up for training courses through Literacy Advance of Houston, a non-profit organization that assists and empowers adults to achieve personal goals and self-sufficiency through improved literacy.
From there, he began teaching reading to adults with the Harris County Department of Education. The first person he taught how to read there was 65 years old. The senior citizen informed Kessler that he had served as a deacon at church and periodically had to recite readings from the prayer book during services.
“He told me he used to have to memorize what he was going to have to “read” and would practice with his wife so when he went to church he was prepared,” Kessler said.
Later on, Kessler connected with KIPP Houston through his volunteering at the Holocaust Museum.
It was during a volunteer shift at the Holocaust Museum in his first year of retirement that Kessler was assigned to take a group of KIPP Liberation students on a tour.
“I was impressed with the students,” he recalled. “I’d heard of KIPP, but didn’t know much about it.”
After the tour, Kessler spoke to the teacher chaperone and asked if the school had a need for a volunteer reading tutor. At the time, KIPP Liberation did not have a volunteer reading tutor. The teacher suggested Kessler visit the school and discuss his idea with former KIPP Liberation Learning Specialist and current Assistant Principal, Rolanda Hearne.
“I met Mrs. Hearne,” Kessler said. “She and I both thought it was a good idea, and we made it work.”
IMPACTING & INSPIRING KIPPsters
KIPP Liberation Upper School Learning Specialist Brandilyn Williams first met Dr. Kessler in 2014 and has been coordinating his schedule with students for the past two years. Each Wednesday, Kessler arrives at KIPP Liberation at 7:30 a.m. and departs at 12:30 p.m. During his five hours on campus, he meets and reads with 10 different students for 30-minute sessions.
“He meets with students who can benefit from decoding and phonological awareness,” Williams said. “He’s there helping them with decoding and word pronunciations.”
While Kessler acknowledges that each KIPPster is different and has their own story, he always makes it a point to share his theory on reading at the beginning of a session with any new student.
“I start with, ‘hey, reading is easy. It’s nothing to be afraid of. There are a few rules you have to learn. If you can master those few rules — which are easy — you can read any word in the world,”’ he said.
Williams believes that Kessler’s passion towards reading is what has made him successful in reaching her students.
“He loves what he does,” Williams said. “He’s very much schedule aligned and always wanting to know what he can do to help. He’s very honest and transparent as well. The students have progressed so much and he creates a spark in reading for them.”
Seventh-grader Aleksander Howard meets with Kessler on Wednesdays and said that not only has his reading improved under Kessler’s guidance, but also his definitions with words.
“Dr. Kessler is a great man,” Howard said. “He helps me to learn and think. He always makes people happy. He loves books and loves helping children who are in need.”
It’s no secret that students carry excitement whenever they go read with Kessler. And they view the time with him as much more than a weekly 30-minute commitment.
“Students respect him,” Williams said. “He’s demanding. He’s not aggressively or verbally demanding. His presence is demanding and his work is phenomenal.”
FINDING A CALLING IN RETIREMENT
When Kessler was nearing his 2008 retirement, he reflected back on what someone had once told him several years earlier: that he needed to find something to retire to.
Flash forward 10 years and it’s evident that he’s found that something.
“It’s my non-paying job,” Kessler said. “I get paid in satisfaction.”
And the satisfaction element is what makes him continue doing the work.
Whether he’s educating a visitor at the Holocaust Museum, helping an adult learn to read at the Harris County Department of Education, or meeting one-on-one to read with students at KIPP Liberation, Kessler notes that each volunteer opportunity is rewarding.
“They each sort of mesh,” Kessler said of his three volunteer outlets. “It is gratifying because with reading you can see some results over a period of time. The museum is totally different in the sense that people come there because they’re trying to find out about history and an issue. There is a lot of satisfaction that I get from each of these.
“I think we all like to do things we get satisfaction from. It’s satisfying to know that you’re doing something and helping people better their lives.”
We at KIPP Houston thank Dr. Kessler for his time, effort, and investment in bettering the lives of many of our KIPPsters.
If you are interested in helping tutor KIPPsters, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.