The white sandwich board in front of Fire Station 27 said, “Story time. 5 p.m. Tonight.”
Parents from the neighborhood and their children knew the drill. They walked into the Buckhead community fire station at 4260 Northside Dr. NW on Sept. 2 and began to take their seats. Children sat cross-legged on the floor.
Glenn Barry walked in. The Atlanta firefighter is a tall, wiry man, with close cropped gray hair and veins around his arms like cords. He spoke in soft reassuring tones, like a public radio host.
He kidded with them at first.
“You came in for a blood pressure check?” he asked the children. “You looking for directions to Chastain Park?”
No, they said. They came for story time.
For the last 12 years, Barry has fought fires and at the same time fought for the hearts and minds of the kids in his community.
He started at the fire station where he used to work in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood. He came to Fire Station 27 six years ago and kept it going. When the children stop by once a week, he reads them a story from one of his books, asks them what they learned in school and then lets them sit in the cabin of the fire truck.
A pretty good afternoon for a 6-year-old and free entertainment for their parents. But there’s a deeper meaning for Barry.
As strange as it may sound, the 1999 Columbine High School massacre inspired Barry’s weekly ritual.
“Those kids being in their late teenage years and feeling as though it was OK to do this made me think there’s something wrong here,” Barry said. “We’re not sending the right message to kids, and in some small way I’m trying to give that to them.”
On that day, he read the book “Look! I can read.”
“What does reading do for you?” he asked the children. “What does it help you develop?”
He pointed to his head.
After a few minutes, he invited the group to see the fire truck. He hoisted each child into the cabin. They pushed on the brakes and hung out the windows, mugging for the cameras as their parents snapped away.
Lindsey Snelson brought her boys: Jack, 8, and Billy, 6. This was her second visit to story time.
“He usually seems to mention some sort of safety issue,” she said. “I can talk about it with them on the way home.”
Greg Averbuch brought his children: Alexander, 5, and Elizabeth, 7. “Story time is never a bad thing,” he said. “And who doesn’t like a visit to the firehouse?”
After an hour playing in the truck, the kids and their parents waved goodbye and Barry went back into his cool, dark office, and waited for a call.
Occasionally he runs into one of the children he’s read to, all grown up and finding their own way in the world. He’ll never know for sure if they got the message. He likes to think so.
Barry tries to be a good messenger. During story time, he pointed to a page where the little girl in the story told her mother, “I love you.” She held a card with a picture of a heart.
“That’s where you keep all your love,” he told the children. “Your heart.”