ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1998, a book published by Scholastic featured four fresh-faced young stars, kids who even before puberty had shown brilliance beyond their years in their respective fields.
The book, geared toward inspiring young readers to pursue their own passions, was aptly titled “What Talent!” Among the precocious four were concert violinist Midori, Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, and Justin Miller, who made the Guinness World Records for the youngest chef, at age 18 months.
The fourth was Lawrence Charles Vargas of Albuquerque’s West Side, who by the time he was 12 had already been featured in national publications and had won accolades for his Southwestern-inspired art, a talent he had been honing since he was 2 when his artist father, Lawrence Vargas, stuck a paintbrush in his hand as a way to keep him placated in the studio.
Truth be told, painting came far easier to Lawrence Charles than reading did.
“My son struggled to learn to read, and here I was a literacy teacher,” said his mother, Terry Vargas, retired after 34 years with Albuquerque Public Schools. “But he didn’t give up. I connected him to the resources I had; he worked with amazing teachers. And in his struggle, he came to truly realize the power of the written word.”
Children across the country often wrote to Lawrence Charles after reading the Scholastic book, she said. Still, she thinks he never fully realized the book had inspired those children not just to read but to find something they loved to do and then do it well.
For Lawrence Charles, that was art. But it was also heart, known as he was for his generosity even at an early age.
The Scholastic book is out of print these days. Lawrence Charles is gone, too, killed at age 23 in July 2008, by a gunman in a Downtown parking garage.
But his art, his generosity and his appreciation of the power of books continues – and in an especially big way this Saturday when the city’s newest public library has its grand opening.
The $11 million, 25,000-square-foot library – the first to be built in the city 17 years – at Central and Unser NW is named after former City Councilor Patrick J. Baca. Two reading rooms and an outdoor plaza are dedicated to Richard Freedman, an Albuquerque native whose great passion in life was reading books and who, after his death in 2009, left his estate to benefit the Albuquerque Public Library.
The children’s activity room memorializes Lawrence Charles, an honor the Vargas family says is bittersweet, exhilarating, humbling and hopeful.
After his death, his family created the Lawrence Charles Vargas Memorial Shoes for Kids and Acts of Compassion project to continue the good works he had inspired. As the name implies, giving away shoes to children by the thousands over the years has been the main focus of the project, inspired by a kindness Lawrence Charles showed as a fifth-grader when he gave a needy classmate his brand-new and beloved Nikes.
The Vargases have traveled extensively across the Southwest, handing out about 6,000 pairs of shoes to children in pueblos and in poverty programs and those who aren’t necessarily in financial need but deserve a random act of kindness anyway.
“The message has always been not just shoes but hope, healing, the power of paying it forward,” Terry Vargas said. “And love.”
The Vargases plan to give away shoes to children willing to wait in line at Saturday’s library grand opening.
Along with the shoes, the Vargases have begun handing out books to children with help from Paula DeLap-Padilla of the city’s “Read to Me” project.
“That’s why the library dedication means that much more to us,” Vargas said. “Books are the key to becoming literate.”
The Vargases have donated nine of Lawrence Charles’ lithographs, which will hang in the children’s activity room. A shadow box containing a biography of Lawrence Charles and one of his paintbrushes is also being prepared.
Terry Vargas said she also would like to donate a copy of “What Talent!,” the Scholastic book that told the story of a little boy from the West Side who painted and dreamed of a better world.
“We hope when kids visit here, they become inspired to read, of course, but also to practice random acts of kindness, to give back to their communities and to realize their dreams,” she said. “Every child has something to offer, some talent to give. It’s just waiting to be cultured.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.