BERKELEY -- Riding a bus to Oakland one day in 1984, Sally Baker watched as two young African-American boys tried in vain to read a newspaper, something the two 10-year-olds should have been able to do fairly easily.
"I thought, that was a tragedy," Baker recalls. "They were having trouble reading some very simple words."
That vignette on the bus turned out to be the inspiration for "Wee Poets," a weekly television show now in its 30th year. The show, taped at Berkeley Community Media, now airs several times a week on cable access stations from Hercules to Fremont.
"I thought I could start a television show for kids who write poetry during school time, and they could come and read it on my TV show," said Baker, of Berkeley.
On the show, elementary and middle school students from Alameda and Contra Costa counties read poetry they create in after-school classes. Some sing and dance. A second group of older kids, ages 13 to 19, set up and tear down the stage and lights, film the segment and edit the tape. In addition to poetry reading, Baker finds a guest to interview each week, who talks about his or her career. Guests range from doctors and lawyers to kite designers.
Some of the shows from years past are on YouTube. In one of them from three years ago, a 10-year-old girl talks about her older sister going away to college. It is called "My Sister is Leaving."
I am sitting on my bed crying
My sister is packing her bags
I don't want you to leave
We fight, we argue, but inside I hope you know I love you
When you leave, who will I talk to?
You haven't left yet, but I missed you as if you have
I am very proud of you but please, please don't leave
Baker, as the show host, estimates she has interviewed 34,000 young poets since the show started.
She partnered with Adnan Touma, who teaches the older kids how to film and produce a television show. The two have been working together ever since.
Touma, who has a speech disability and is a retired architectural engineer from San Pablo, said he shows the studio team firsthand how someone can overcome obstacles and get a good career.
"I feel proud that I can share with the children and teenagers the difficulties I overcame despite my speech disability," Touma said. "I tell them to pursue their goals and let nothing stop them from achieving."
Thirty years have come and gone, but Baker said she will never forget one young guest who went on the air despite having been horribly disfigured.
"That child's face was so burned, you couldn't tell if she was a boy or a girl," Baker said.
Baker said the girl's father brought her in and said he wanted to build her self-esteem. But the student studio crew balked. They didn't want to film her, and they worried that putting such an injured young person on television would be inappropriate.
"I told the kids 'we have to put this child on the show,'" Baker recalls. "So I went into the bathroom and I said 'God, show me what to do,' then I came out and said to the camera man, who was 13, 'you have to focus on this child, you have to look at her and pretend she has no burns at all and treat her like all the other kids.'"
After the show, Baker said she knew it was the right thing because she got lots of phone calls thanking her for putting the girl on.
"I'll never forget that child," Baker said. "She touched me. She wanted to be a ballerina or a skater. She was like any other child at heart, and maybe she was testing me."
Baker, who retired from her UC Berkeley job as an administrative assistant in 1991, and Touma have been to the White House during the Reagan administration to be recognized for their work and have done traveling shows in France and Jamaica.
"And every year we have an anniversary show," Baker said. "I have some guests come back and tell how they started out on my show when they were 8 or 9 years old. It's a great feeling seeing them. Sometimes when I walk down the street in Berkeley grown-ups will say 'Hey, do you remember me, I was on your show when I was 9 and I still have the videotape.'"
Baker said she has found something in her life that she really likes to do and she couldn't think of stopping.
"Each child is like a flower, they bloom, then I see them 20 years later and they have developed as an adult," Baker said. "We still have thousands of kids to reach."
Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakle