Each Tuesday afternoon from last September through June, an unlikely scene unfolded at Time Warner Cable’s normally staid headquarters in Stamford, Conn. A school bus from nearby Dolan Middle School arrived outside the brick building, unleashing a stream of kids who clattered up one flight of stairs to the company cafeteria above the lobby. Dumping their backpacks, they headed directly for the snacks. After filling their plates, they finally settled down and worked on the task at hand: honing their reading skills with Time Warner’s Time to Read volunteer tutors. Similar scenes have played out at various Time to Read sites for years. The literacy and mentoring program is practically an institution at Time Warner; the company recently celebrated the program’s 20th anniversary. Among Time Warner divisions, Time Warner Cable is by far the program’s largest participant, with 22 of the company’s 29 divisions managing 386 program sites (out of 550 throughout Time Warner) where more than 3,500 tutors—a mix of employee and community volunteers—work with nearly 18,000 students. Although some cable divisions, such as Time Warner Cable Charlotte and Time Warner Cable Raleigh, have been participating for much more than 10 years, Time Warner Cable’s headquarters in Stamford—which, unlike many of its divisions, does not have a strong local presence—never sought to join the program, described by the company as the country’s largest corporate literacy program. That changed last year. "When we looked around and were encouraging our divisions to participate, we took a look at Stamford and said, `Hey guys, this is something we need to initiate here,’" says Bonnie Hathaway, VP, public affairs. When Hathaway asked employees at headquarters to participate, COO John Billock "was one of the first people who raised his hand." Three years ago, Peggy O’Brien was recruited as executive director of Cable in the Classroom (back when she didn’t know an MSO from a UFO, she says). "What became clear really fast was that Time Warner overall had a fabulous commitment" to kids and educational initiatives. The Time to Read program is funded by Time Warner corporate, which provides materials and training for volunteers, and a curriculum. "People here, [CEO] Dick Parsons especially, feel that the corporation has an obligation to address some of the social ills, but it also builds the corporation’s reputation and builds up greater employee loyalty," says Virginia McEnerney, Time Warner VP, corporate relations. Time Inc. supplies the magazines that are the basis of the weekly program. As Hathaway explains, it’s then up to the divisions to provide the "bells and whistles"—anything from refreshments to tote bags for the volunteers, to tchotchkeys for a "graduation" ceremony. June Lohman, the program’s coordinator at Time Warner Cable Houston, typically budgets up to $1,000 a year for the extras. Houston is among the largest of the participating Time Warner Cable divisions—Lohman oversees 52 program sites. The Bottom Line It’s difficult to measure the bottom-line benefit to a cable system participating in Time to Read, several people at the system level say. Payback comes in several different forms. "A lot of people say, `You’re a cable company, why in the world do you care if people can read?’" says Ray Purser, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable Houston. "The fact is if you are not able to read you are not able to use our high-speed Internet service. If you are not able to read it is very difficult to become a productive member of society, and it’s difficult to hold down a steady job and to become a good cable customer." In that respect, it’s good for business. It’s also a way to foster good relations with regulators. Deane Leavenworth, VP communications in Los Angeles, says his division’s educational efforts as well as its efforts to get kids more involved in the political process serve as "a great way to have interaction with elected officials without it being about regulatory issues." In other words, system problems aren’t the only reason for a local cable operator to talk to elected officials or regulators. Of course, there’s also the satisfaction that comes from seeing young people bloom. Elizabeth Boyuk, Time Warner Cable’s community relations coordinator in Columbus, Ohio, had seven employee tutors a year ago; she now has 15 and oversees 15 additional tutors who are parents. Boyuk tells of one little girl who graduated from the program and begged to continue. Then there were the special education kids who volunteered to be part of a group of student tutors at Cinco Ranch High School in Houston. Lohman says that helping kids improve their reading skills—and scores—has raised the tutors’ self-esteem. At the Stamford headquarters, John Billock and Bonnie Hathaway shared tutoring responsibilities for a girl who, in Hathaway’s words, was a "tough nut to crack"—she was quiet and kept to herself. It was Billock who got through to her, Hathaway says, after he discovered that she enjoyed word scrambles. A wordsmith himself, Billock saved a few minutes at each tutoring session to challenge her with word games, keeping a running tally of their scores. As Hathaway describes it, over the weeks her confidence and self-esteem blossomed. How could they tell? At a poetry slam the group held at its June graduation, she was the first to raise her hand to read her poem.