Dion Harrison spends his days teaching 3- and 4-year-old students to read, but he’s also teaching them how to overcome the odds stacked against many of them.

Harrison, 19, is a Leading Men Fellow and one of just a handful of recent D.C. Public School graduates who are serving as Pre-K literacy tutors. The goal is to have young men of color help students learn to read and also serve as role models. Harrison said he’s grown close to his students.

“They’re like my babies, I feel like I have 15 kids,” he said.

Harrison graduated from Eastern High School in 2016. Thursday is Read Across America Day and he spent the day working with Hazel and Mikai, two Pre-K students at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Ward 7 in Northeast D.C.

“Not many people have had like a black male educator in the school that was also a positive role,” Dion added, thinking of his own public school education.

He said he hopes his presence can teach the children about opportunities.

“Don’t ever let people tell you that you can’t get to this because it’s possible,” he added.

Principal Davia Walker said she has high hopes and expectations for her students.

“We’re not trying to just level the playing field, we’re trying to smash it,” she said.

Walker said some of the school’s students are homeless. Many of them come from families without a lot of money.

“This is a community that is really fighting a war; they are suffering PTSD like anyone who has been in a war zone that has suffered one trauma after another. Parents aren’t in the home. They may have been locked up. They’re on drugs, or someone’s been on drugs. They may have been to jail. They may have suffered some type of personal violence,” Walker explained.

She said once a child hits their literacy goal, Dion moves on to help the next, teaching reading, but also how to rise above, and being a role model.

Dion said the children have also had an impact on him.

“I feel like it’s making me open my eyes to the impact that I have on other people’s lives, and the power that I have as a person, as a man, as a black man, as an educator,” he said.

Dion said his dream is to combine his love of teaching with his love of the performing arts to help young people use art to heal.