A Love of Learning Features Giving Back Kindness in Action Reading

‘I Am Here for a Purpose’—Exonerated After 27 Years, John Bunn Gives Back Through Literacy

John Bunn (Samira Bouaou)

Wrongly convicted and incarcerated at the age of 14, John Bunn has endured many struggles from a young age. Born and raised in Brownsville, New York City, to a single mother of three, Bunn had to learn to fend for himself without much guidance. Having lost his father before he was born, he spent the majority of his teenage life without the support of any male figures.

“In the environment I grew up in, the males would come around to exploit, not to come around with love and affection,” he said. 

‘I Grew Up in Prison’

Bunn was forced to spend 17 years of his life behind bars, in an environment devoid of sympathy.

“It was predator-prey. If they [prisoners] felt you got a weakness, they took advantage of you,” he said.

He spent a further 10 years on parole, fighting for his innocence.

Before he was arrested and taken into prison, Bunn struggled with illiteracy; which only escalated while he was incarcerated.

“When they had me on trial, they told me to write down any questions I had. I couldn’t write down anything. I didn’t know how to express myself. That was the most trapped and embarrassing feeling you can ever imagine,” he said, breaking into a sob. 

With the help of teachers, he finally learned how to read and write by the age of 16. It changed the course of his life. 

“It made me stronger. It made me feel like I could fight for my life,” he said. Learning how to read and write is what drove Bunn to later go on to become a facilitator of an anger management program while in prison. From there, he met many other young men struggling with the challenges of illiteracy. “And I would talk to them about my illiteracy issues. And I told them that this was not something to be ashamed of,” he said.

The Unheard

Today, Bunn is the founder of and helps bring positivity into communities, schools, houses, and prisons of New York City.

Meeting other young men struggling with illiteracy was the driving point that led him to found his literacy program after being exonerated.

In 2017, it initially started as a book drive aimed at refurbishing the libraries at Rikers Island and providing under-resourced communities with educational literature, according to the program website.

Today, the program also offers roleplaying activities to at-risk youth where they’re tasked with group interactions. “We put individuals in real-life scenarios and give them the option to put themselves in other people’s shoes. We try to make them think before making decisions. This is what we call consequential thinking,” Bunn said.

Finding His Passion

The program began during Bunn’s nearly 12 years on parole.

“It [parole] put my life in a limbo state. I knew I was innocent. Everybody knew I was innocent. And that’s what I was fighting for,” he said. While still waiting for a final decision to be made on his conviction, Bunn channeled that restlessness into something positive.

“I needed to put my energy into something more progressive,” he said. “A voice for the unheardI don’t even know when it became the whole phrase, but it always represented me and what I felt inside my spirit.” 

After suffering many setbacks and losing out on the prime years of his life while stuck in prison, Bunn refocused his attention on helping others who may be at risk of getting ensnared in the prison system.

“Where I come from,” Bunn said, “we don’t have too many role models. So my message is, if you don’t have anybody to show you the way, you make your own way. Don’t let that be the reason to discourage you from going forward. And that’s what I stand for. And that’s what we stand for.”

John Bunn visiting a school in NYC. (Samira Bouaou)

Making Positivity Cool for Kids

Part of Bunn’s mission is passing his positivity on to others. “The greatest champions have to go through adversities for them to have the empathy to deal with the world from a different perspective,” Bunn said.

“Our main message is about making positivity cool,” he tells me about his organization. He said that in today’s world, children are vulnerable to absorbing harmful messages from the media they consume. A lot of music nowadays romanticizes being tough, drugs, skipping school, and gang culture. But “that’s not real life,” Bunn says. His organization advocates for changing this narrative so that kids begin associating positivity with coolness. 

A Voice 4 the Unheard not only provides prisons and schools with an abundance of literature but also offers numerous resources and networking opportunities to young people and children from underprivileged backgrounds.

“There’s a lack of resources in these communities, and we want to open them up to other resources that they may not know we have available today,” Bunn said. One of the ways the organization is working to bring resources closer to disadvantaged students is by building a network with other nonprofits and educational groups. 

George Garber, who works alongside Bunn as one of the core members of the organization, says, “We’re working on creating a student portal on our website where kids could go and connect with other local nonprofits to fulfill their passions, whether that would be music, poetry, art, or the environment.” 

The team has many future projects in mind, such as building a kids’ center to provide students with a safe physical location to study and access certain educational materials that may not be readily available in their immediate communities.

“A safe place where they can feel like it’s cool to learn at,” Bunn said. 

A Love of Learning Reading

Reading, the Gateway to Empathy

“It’s all so sad,” said Emma, reflecting on the death of Hector as seen through the eyes of his grieving parents. “Especially because last week during class, I was happy about Achilles getting his revenge. We were excited as he put his armor on and went out to fight with Hector. We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since Hector killed Patroclus. But now, I hate it.”

Welcome to my homeschool literature class where we’re diving deep into the “Iliad.”

The narrative’s changing point of view has Emma and her classmates on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Where once they cheered Achilles on as he prepared for battle, now the kids are face-to-face with the high price of war. They’ve seen the grief of Hector’s parents, who watched as their son was cut down on the battlefield in front of them.

Another scene shift and now they see Hector’s wife, Andromache, weaving at her loom, getting a hot bath ready for Hector, oblivious to the fact her husband has just been killed. “I think Homer’s a stinker,” said Lauren. “He makes us want Achilles to succeed with his revenge, but as soon as it happens, I’m sad for Hector’s wife and family. Especially since the whole time he’s describing Andromache, we know what’s happened, so we’re here waiting for the other shoe to drop for her. Reading that was awful.”

“I wish life could be more fair,” said Emma.

More than watching movies or television shows, more than listening to audiobooks or playing games, reading serves as a magic doorway to empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people. Unfortunately in today’s world, feeling empathy for others is quickly becoming something of a lost art. But it doesn’t have to be. Particularly when you start early. Award-winning children’s book creator Julia Cook, author of nearly 100 books for children, including “The Judgmental Flower” and the forthcoming “Will You Be the I in KIND?,” says, “You cannot teach empathy to children, you can only offer them experiences that allow them to develop it from within. Reading is a great way to do that!”

As a longtime classroom teacher, I agree. I regularly remind my students that none of us has the time to meet all the people, live through all the situations, visit all the places, and make all the mistakes, so reading is our next best option. Be they fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose or plays; books and the characters who live in their pages help readers view the world firsthand from someone else’s perspective. A character’s point of view becomes the lens through which readers see the action and interactions of the story. Readers sneak inside someone else’s head and share that person’s emotions. As readers, we have the opportunity to experience more of the world than we ever could on our own.

As a former school counselor, Cook quickly realized that in order to help children, she needed to enter their view of the world, to empathize with them as they tried to figure out how the world worked. Reading books makes it easier for children to understand emotions and people’s reactions to extreme situations when they aren’t immediately involved in those situations. Plus, reading (or being read to) gives kids the opportunity to see the world from a point of view other than their own.

Maybe that new perspective comes from Hank the Cowdog’s point of view, maybe it comes from Big Dog and Little Dog, maybe from a classic such as Lassie or Old Yeller. The important thing is for children to learn that the world doesn’t look the same to everyone. Different people experience things in different ways. Little Dog’s encounter with a too-long bed is different than Big Dog’s encounter with a too-short bed.

As an only child, I never longed for siblings of my own, but I was curious about how having a brother or sister worked. That curiosity was satisfied by Charlie and Sally Brown and Lucy and Linus Van Pelt as I read about their sibling antics in the Peanuts comic strips. As I grew older, I joined the Ingalls family in the Little House books and later, the Bennet family of “Pride and Prejudice.” I gained an understanding of how tumultuous and intense the relationship between siblings can be.

Before I experienced the death of a loved one in real life, I was as powerless as Meg, Jo, and Amy to save dear, sweet Beth March in Little Women. While the March family grieved their loss, I sobbed along in my bedroom, because as a reader, I had lost someone important to me too.

I began to understand what grief felt like. I also learned how much it could hurt to be told “Ah, what’s the big deal, it’s only a book; it’s not like anybody actually died.” And by extension, I realized I didn’t want to be the one to say, “Ah, what’s the big deal, it’s ‘just’ a —” to someone else who experienced a loss. That’s empathy.

That’s what Atticus Finch is talking about when he tells Scout (and everyone who reads “To Kill a Mockingbird”) “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus doesn’t add a caveat of “but only walk around in the skin of people you like or people who are like you.” It’s important to extend empathy to everyone. Later in the novel, Atticus once again reminds Scout, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

What if that became a summertime goal? It’s as easy as searching out a book that sounds interesting. Then just turn the page, slip into someone else’s shoes, and open the gateway to empathy.

Gina Prosch is a writer, home educator, life coach, and parent located in mid-Missouri. She is the author of “This Day’s Joy” and “Finding This Day’s Joy,” both of which are available at Amazon. Find her online at or She also co-hosts The OnlySchoolers Podcast (