SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Hidden somewhere in Chris and Martha Thomas' garage in Coppell, Texas, is a giant poster board that to many would look like nothing more than a school project long since abandoned.
The poster, a handmade decision chart belonging to their son, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, represents so much more. In trying to choose where he would play college football, Thomas took it upon himself to make the poster.
Among the categories are things most teenage boys don't spend much time thinking about. Sure, the quality of the football program and potential playing time were accounted for, but academics, alumni networking opportunities and tutoring programs took up the bulk of the space.
That poster ultimately led Thomas to Stanford and Palo Alto, California, though perhaps that wasn't too difficult of a decision, given his concurrent passions for football and education.
"There were, like, five or six things that were on that criteria board that he used for deciding among all the schools he was considering," Chris Thomas said. "I have got to believe that all of the reading and things he did before went into that process to help him make a very smart decision."
That poster also represents a background heavily rooted in the importance of education and the subsequent opportunities Thomas was afforded that others without similar advantages might not have had.
For proof, look no further than the cleats Thomas will wear in Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears as part of the NFL's "My Cleats, My Cause" initiative. He will wear cleats representing 10 Books a Home, a nonprofit in East Palo Alto, which helps promote early childhood learning.
An emphasis on education
Growing up in a family his mother describes as full "of teachers and preachers," Thomas was never far from a book. His interests ran the gamut of subjects from horses to dinosaurs to Star Wars to The Hunger Games. He also had an affinity for cookbooks, and his parents ensured that he read plenty about civil rights.
Thomas' focus on reading was the product of parents intent on driving home the need to learn. Chris and Martha Thomas met in the early 1980s at the College of Wooster (Ohio), considered one of the premiere liberal arts school in the country. There, both earned degrees, with Chris Thomas becoming the first in his family to attend college and earn a diploma. He now works as vice president of sales and marketing for a marketing company, as part of a long business career that included a five-year stop in Australia with his family while working for Procter & Gamble.
Martha Thomas came from a long line of educators, beginning with her grandmother. Each of her grandmother's kids, including Martha's mom, was a teacher. Now Martha teaches middle school, a job she has held for more than a dozen years all over the country.
Even though Solomon and his older sister, Ella, are out of college, that emphasis on education remains at the center of everything they do.
"I was very fortunate, blessed with two amazing parents and a beautiful household, and my dad didn't come from much but made his way through education, and seeing that example and seeing how important it is really left a mark on me," Thomas said. "And to know that outside my box, not everyone is like me, and not every child has a parent who preaches education. To many people, that's common sense, but that's not true in every household. It's rare in a lot of households to preach education and have books, to be able to get a good education at a normal school. I just want to make sure that I take what I was fortunate with and give it back to the community and people who weren't."
At the beginning of this year, Martha Thomas attended a teachers' conference that left a lasting impression. One of Martha's takeaways from the conference was further knowledge of the "30 million-word gap," a study conducted by University of Kansas researchers that showed that children from lower-income families hear 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the time they are 4 years old. Martha also learned about some of the correlations between childhood literacy and incarceration.
"I want to help with getting books in homes, getting kids to realize at a young age that education is important and that they really should find a way to make sure that that's their No. 1 priority instead of other things around them." 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas
The Reading Partners program has research showing that children not reading at or above their grade level by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. That number increases to six times less likely for students from low-income families.
A 2009 study by Northeastern University found that high school dropouts were 63 times more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime than college graduates. The National Adult Literacy Survey determined that 70 percent of incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level.
Those are just some of the things Thomas has learned from conversations with his mother and from seeking information on his own.
"My mom started crying when she read some of those statistics to me because it's so sad," Thomas said. "It's been on my mind."
Root of the problem
Since well before the Niners used the No. 3 pick on Thomas in this year's draft, he had an idea that he wanted to use his platform to focus on early education.
While protests of racial inequality during the national anthem expanded earlier this season, Thomas did not kneel. He has, on multiple occasions, stood next to a kneeling teammate with a hand on a shoulder as a sign of support.
"We have talked to him about 'You can protest, but where is the meat of it?'" Martha Thomas said. "'Do you have anything to back up your protest?'"
When the Niners community relations team reached out to ask Thomas if he would like to participate in "My Cause, My Cleats," Thomas immediately said yes with an eye toward finding a cause he cares about that could get at the root of some of the issues being protested.
Like any Silicon Valley resident might, Thomas turned to Google with two themes for the cause he wanted to embrace: It had to be focused on education, and it had to be local.
"I went to school at Stanford, so I was right there in Palo Alto. You always hear about East Palo Alto and how it's a really hard area and they need a lot of help," Thomas said. "I wanted to be able to do something close to where I used to be and where I am now, and I thought I would start searching for nonprofits in East Palo Alto (and) 10 Books a Home stood out. I thought this was perfect because I wanted to do something with children's literacy and young children starting to learn in high-poverty areas. It was perfect for me."
East Palo Alto sits next to Palo Alto, with the two cities separated largely by a major freeway. In the 1980s and early '90s, East Palo Alto was known for its crime and poverty, earning the label of murder capital of the United States in 1992.
It was right around that time that Paul Thiebaut III was 13 years old and running the streets of East Palo Alto, dealing drugs while trying to figure out how to avoid prison and stay alive. At various times over the next decade, Thiebaut would drop out of school and find himself either in juvenile detention centers or homeless.
After scraping by for about 10 years, Thiebaut began having conversations with a friend who suggested Thiebaut read Malcolm X's autobiography.
According to Thiebaut, it was the first book he ever read. He was 23.
"It just opened something up in my mind that caused me to want more," Thiebaut said.
One night, as Thiebaut was driving a drug kingpin around the Bay Area, he ended up in a hotel room with about $20,000 worth of ketamine on a table.
"It was like my moment when I knew this was wrong," Thiebaut said. "It was the wrong thing for me to be doing ... And I told him, 'I'm out, man.' So I left that hotel room with him screaming and waving his Glock in the air. I wasn't even sure if I was going to walk out alive. I had to go. I went to college."
Thiebaut attended San Jose State, earning a degree in economics with a minor in business at age 27. From there, he took up tutoring for kids from first grade through high school. He developed his own style to connect with kids. He began by asking each of them what they like to do. Once he learned what a child liked, he began building lesson plans around it.
In 2009, Thiebaut began a nonprofit in East Palo Alto, aiming to make a positive difference in his community. Although the crime rate has improved since Thiebaut's drug dealing days, statistics still show that the student poverty level in East Palo Alto is nearly 100 percent. Thiebaut’s organization states that a majority of the students in the Ravenswood School District start kindergarten unprepared.
Now, 10 Books a Home operates out of a tiny pink house on a residential street. Inside, Thiebaut keeps dozens of puzzles, games and just about any other learning tool you can imagine. He turned the garage into a children's library full of books, and when a child joins, he or she gets a personalized book case stocked with 10 books, a number that will grow as the child goes deeper into the program.
"I see these parents, I see these children, they are so capable, and they get written off," Thiebaut said. "Just because of geography and the biases and stereotypes that we have built up to associate with those kinds of communities. So when I walk in, it actually taught me that everywhere is East Palo Alto, in a sense. I want to see these kids prove the world wrong, and not because I want anyone to stick a tongue out but because I think that if they can prove the world wrong, the world will realize it can be a much better place."
Each child who joins 10 Books a Home receives one-on-one tutoring every week for two years from a group of volunteers. As part of the process, parents are asked to participate in every session.
At the heart of the program is what Thiebaut calls the "ILM" (Intrinsic Learning Motivation) method. In simple terms, each tutor is trained to talk to the child and the child's parents, find out what he or she likes and use that as a springboard for learning.
Thiebaut has homed in on working with preschool children, a nod to the 30 million-word gap and the importance of ensuring that children from lower-income families begin school with at least the same reading level as their peers, as well as a more diverse and expansive vocabulary.
"I was 23 when I woke up," Thiebaut said. "These kids are 3, and I'm like, 'Yeah, don't wait 20 years. Let's start now.' There's no 3-year-old gangster, there's no 3-year-old bully, there's no 3-year-old drug dealer. None of that. At 3, anything and everything is possible."
After Thomas identified 10 Books a Home as his cause, the Niners reached out to Thiebaut. It took Thiebaut all of five seconds to agree and let the team know he had the perfect candidate to meet with Thomas at the team's introductory event.
On Oct. 24, the Niners hosted a handful of their players and representatives from each of their causes. It served as a brainstorming session for the players and the various organizations to come up with designs for their cleats.
It was there at Levi's Stadium that Thomas first met Danny Arrellin, 4, and his mother, Lucia Ledezma. Danny made an immediate impression on Thomas with his energy and enthusiasm, regularly taking off in a dead sprint and making Thomas chase after him like he does a quarterback on Sunday.
Eventually, the two bonded and began dreaming up ideas for the cleats. Danny, who is autistic, began drawing a variety of colors on the cleats, and Thiebaut shared Danny's love for trains as well as numbers and letters as additional inspiration.
"Danny is awesome," Thomas said. "He is energetic, and he's just a kid who is always learning and looks like he's loving life and having a good time. He's a great motivation for me and a great kid to be around."
From there, shoe designer Terrell Nievera was tasked with painting rainbow-colored cleats with numbers, letters and perhaps even a train. The finished product includes the 10 Books a Home slogan ("We don't close achievement gaps. We prevent them") and its logo.
Danny and Thomas reconnected Tuesday night for the unveiling of the cleats, and Danny helped Thomas open the gift-wrapped box of shoes.
"I thought this was the perfect way to start diving into what I'm passionate about, what I care about and what I want to get involved with in the future," Thomas said.
Big plans ahead
At Stanford, Thomas attended a few speeches delivered by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Each time, Rice emphasized the importance of making a difference in your home community. For her, that meant East Palo Alto. For Thomas, who still calls the area home as a 49er, it does as well.
In his first offseason, Thomas hopes to visit 10 Books a Home and volunteer to tutor and share his story. He also hopes to use what he learns from 10 Books a Home to help establish his own foundation focused on childhood education.
"I want to help with getting books in homes, getting kids to realize at a young age that education is important and that they really should find a way to make sure that that's their No. 1 priority instead of other things around them," Thomas said. "The goal is to try to get it to where it's as important to them as it was to me."
Thiebaut, meanwhile, is planning expansion to East San Jose in 2018, and Danny has already made such positive progress in his first year in the program that Thiebaut is excited to see what Year 2 will bring. Likewise, he adds that all four cohorts to go through the two-year program are currently performing at or above grade level. Those big plans are all at least a little way down the road but not so far that the wheels aren't already in motion.
"I'm in this community, and it's a place I can go and do physical work as well and not just get the name out there," Thomas said. "I can go back in the offseason and go work with kids and be part of this program and see what this organization is doing and put some of it into my own and make my own someday."
As Thomas is quick to point out, there's plenty of work to be done. But the chance to create awareness for an organization such as 10 Books a Home is a good place to begin taking one rainbow-colored step in the right direction.