How It All Began



Steve Leveen
Chairman and Co-Founder

Ice cream cones were supposedly invented by accident. The story I’ve heard is that an ice cream vendor at a busy fairgrounds ran out of the paper cups he was using to sell his ice cream and in desperation turned to another vendor who was selling waffles. He served up his ad hoc treat, and the rest is culinary history.

If this story isn’t true, it should be, because it’s a sweet illustration of a larger truth: sometimes adding two good things gets you something great. This is, in fact, just the case in the story I’m about to tell you about how Loop the Lake for Literacy came about.


I’m old enough to remember when walk-a-thons began. It was around 1970, while I was in high school. Some group of do-gooders at Helix High in La Mesa, California, where I was a sophomore, were all excited about walking around the high school track and were trying to talk their fellow students into “sponsoring” them by paying 25 cents a mile.

“What a stupid idea,” I remember saying to my friend Jim. And he agreed, since we both prided our young selves at being cynical about school spirit (despite us both playing trumpet in the band and doing our part for such spirit).

“If you want me to give you some money for your cause, fine,” I remember saying to Jim. “But why do I care if you walk yourself silly around the track?”

My youthful cynicism, as it turned out, could not have been more off target. Decades later we all can testify to the plentitude of athletic events now routinely used to raise money for worthy causes. There are so many of these Walk-a-Thons, Run-a-Thons and Bike-a-Thons for the simple reason that they work.

Moreover, I’ve come over to the other side and regularly participate in such events myself, accelerating in the last five years with rides for MS, diabetes, and especially for cancer research.


During the same five years that I’ve been riding my bike for causes, I’ve also gotten experience tutoring adults in reading and writing English. I began this after seeing my sons get so much out of their community service, and also after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. I called Darlene Kostrub, the head of the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County where I live, and tentatively uttered some fateful words: “I think I’d like to tutor.”


By volunteering I witnessed for myself these recent arrivals from the Caribbean and Latin America working hard to improve their reading and speaking skills. They were tackling a difficult language we all take for granted. After a year or so, I heard about a program The Coalition runs out in the western, agricultural part of our county. I took a day off and drove the hour out to Belle Glade. There I tutored Latina women whose children were gaining reading skills in the same facility. It’s hard to believe that Belle Glade, whose city motto is, “Her Soil is Her Fortune,” is in the same county as plush Palm Beach, with its Rolls Royces and mansions.

When I called Darlene to tell her how impressed I was with the small facility and the diligent students, she explained to me that there was a waiting list of people who want to come get help, but there isn’t enough funding.

After tutoring, I took some time to drive up to the dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee, the gigantic lake that dominates this region like The Great Salt Lake dominates Utah. This is the “O” that you see on Florida maps.

I was startled at the lake’s expansive beauty. Flocks of prehistoric looking roseate spoonbills and snowy egrets flew in formations against religious skies. My son Corey came with me to tutor on two occasions. Afterwards, we rode our bikes on the paved rim of the Herbert Hoover Dike, built after a disastrous hurricane-driven flood in the 1920s. (The book Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston memorialized the disaster in one of America’s great works of fiction—recognized, alas, too late for its author.)


After seeing how beautiful the area was, and how devoid of people and cars (in vivid contrast to where we normally ride along the picturesque but dangerous A1A near our home), I easily convinced my riding buddy Rob Kennedy to do a ride around the lake.

Together with Rob’s brother Brian, and my sons Cal and Corey, we went out on a Friday night at the end of May 2009, and spent the night at Roland Martin’s bass fishing lodge, nestled on the south shore of the lake. Early the next morning, we set out on four bicycles and one white van for support, and began our expedition.

The sun beat on us, various reptiles greeted us, and thunderstorms made us run for cover three times, including for a long lunch in a friendly restaurant whose bartender didn’t mind us coming in soaking wet and dripping on her concrete floor. In all it took us 12 hours to complete the 120 miles. We were sweaty, sore and exhausted.


Lake Okeechobee -   Somewhere along that ride, during one of the breathtakingly beautiful stretches when the cloud-painted skies stretched forever over the glistening lake, the idea struck: We have got to get other cyclists out here to experience this—and why not team up with a great cause…. but of course—the Literacy Coalition.

A month later, I went to lunch with Darlene and floated the idea. A gleam appeared in her eyes. As it turned out, her board was searching for another major event to raise funds for the coalition, and perhaps this was just the thing. As Darlene, Rob and I discussed the idea with friends and associates, we met with universal enthusiasm.

Partly it’s because many people who live in our congested coastal cities of Florida haven’t ever seen Lake Okeechobee, and they’re curious. And partly, it’s the obviously worthy cause of supporting literacy efforts.

The many people we spoke with who live in the Lake Okeechobee area are enthusiastic about outsiders seeing just how inviting their region is. The locals who live in Belle Glade, South Bay, Pahokee and Clewiston think it’s important that people slow down and take some roads less traveled, to experience the beautiful and important ecosystem we call the Everglades.

And that, my friends, is the story of how Loop the Lake for Literacy began. And now a flock of dedicated, hardworking, talented people are the reason we’ll be able to pull it off and make it soar.

To me it sounds like ice cream in a waffle, with chocolate syrup and sprinkles. Or maybe you’d rather try local bass and hush puppies.


Many of us from Levenger participate in the Loop for Literacy event. Come along for the ride—or just support a good cause if you’re so inclined. The rewards, I promise, are sweet.

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