Kendell Myers was still struggling to decipher words such as "car" and "can" in third grade.
"I just wasn't the best reader," Myers, 18, recalled.
His mother, who knew he even lagged behind some kindergartners, signed up her 8-year-old for free tutoring through the YMCA.
"He was one of those kids who did not want to do homework, but once he learned how to read, I never had to help him again," said his mother, Yvonne Collins-Myers of St. Louis.
Not only did the tutoring help her son advance five grade levels in word comprehension, he's now the first in his family to attend college.
"Learning how to read opened his mind to education," Collins-Myers said.
Myers is now at Alabama A&M University, majoring in logistics management. As the freshman starts his first week of classes, the YMCA is holding its annual used book fair, which helps pay for literacy programs like the one that helped Myers succeed in school.
The 34th annual YMCA Bookfair opens tonight at the Kennedy Recreation Center, 6050 Wells Road in south St. Louis County.
Thousands of used novels and textbooks, CDs and DVDs, magazines and even some baseball cards go on sale at 4 p.m. The event ends at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
About 400 volunteers every year collect, sort and sell the books. This year, storytelling hours have been added to the event, along with crafts that "upcycle" unwanted books.
The sale, which outgrew the old Carondelet YMCA several years ago, has buyers from 20 states on its mailing list, says Caroline Mitchell, director of YMCA Community Literacy.
Rare items this year include an $800 complete set of Charles Dickens works, a 1904 "World's Fair Souvenir Cook Book," a miscellany of Scottish witchcraft called "Rowan Tree and Red Thread," and signed works by Jimmy Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pat Boone.
Somewhere among the children's books may be a copy of the Shel Silverstein poems that Kendell Myers' tutor gave him their first year together.
When told he mentioned receiving "A Light in the Attic," the tutor, Cindy Teasdale McGowen said, "That's so cute he remembered."
"The Y does a really nice banquet each year for the students and the tutors," she said. "We were trying to figure what to read. He picked his favorite poem and read it at the event."
McGowen learned about the YMCA tutoring program at a street fair in 2002, when she was about 24, she says. After a couple of weekends of training, she was matched with Kendell and they met twice a week at a library in the Central West End.
She credits Collins-Myers for making sure her son attended the meetings. What concerned McGowen, though, wasn't that tutoring was difficult: It was that the third-grader made such quick progress and obviously had no learning disability.
"The part that was frustrating was that he got that far behind in reading despite being as talented as he is," she said.
McGowen (then Cindy Teasdale) worked with Kendell for two years before moving to California for a job. Eventually she moved back to St. Louis, married and reconnected with Kendell. She gave him a laptop for his high school graduation from Imagine College Prep.
McGowen knew from the start he was bright: "He just hadn't gotten the time and attention he needed."
One-on-one tutoring is available for both children and adult readers. About 100 children and 100 adults take part every year. An additional 200 or so students sign up for small-group help in reading and math.
The book fair, raises about $100,000 a year and contributes $20,000 to $30,000 a year for the literacy programs, helping pay for materials and staff, who train volunteer tutors.