Buffalo transplant offers monthly readings of kids lit in Encinitas
The Big Mosh.
That was how Buffalo, N.Y., native John Masiulionis was known for a decade.
Under that moniker, Masiulionis hosted radio broadcasts, interviewing many of the top athletes in the world of pro wrestling.
He has assumed a much different persona as a transplant to San Diego County: Mr. John the Storyteller.
A publicist for children’s books and authors, Masiulionis has launched a series in which he reads in person to youths in Encinitas.
“Storytime with Mr. John” launched April 2 at the Moonlight Beach overlook, where he read “Little Palm: An Earth Day Celebration” by Lindsay Ann Fink.
The event, which attracted a dozen or so children with their parents and caretakers, also featured activities. Children participated in painting a potted palm tree. They met Gulliver, the mascot of the San Diego Gulls hockey team.
Future readings are scheduled the second Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., starting May 14.
The events are being held at Glen Park, 2149 Orinda Drive, in the city’s Cardiff by the Sea community, in conjunction with the Encinitas Parks & Recreation Department.
“The kids out here absolutely love reading,” Masiulionis said in a recent interview at the Lotus Cafe and Juice Bar in downtown Encinitas. “That’s why I really chose Encinitas as a destination. I feel that the area (and its) energy supports the love of reading for little ones quite a bit.”
Many libraries, schools and other venues host storybook hours indoors. Masiulionis believes outdoor readings are more therapeutic. Many children have been stuck at home because of coronavirus restrictions.
“Kids are able to be present more (outdoors) because kids really have that childlike innocence and they have some kind of connection with nature that we obviously did when we were growing up,” he said. “Plus, I also think there’s a degree of healing that happens too. ...
“Kids spent so much time being cooped up during the pandemic. They weren’t able to spend time with their extended family, especially their friends.”
Masiulionis said one goal of his readings is to help counteract the decline in literacy levels that occurred while schools were shuttered during the pandemic.
“It’s taking some time to get our kids back to where they should be,” he said. “I really feel that it’s up to us, whether you’re a parent, a caregiver, or an educator, to really remind them not only of the short-term benefits of reading, but the long-term benefits and how it can help to set them on a trajectory of success for the rest of their lives.”
Masiulionis’ evolution from wrestling radio show host to children’s book entrepreneur and. reading advocate for little ones has been a spiritual journey.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. he aspired to be a sportscaster.
“I wanted to be Chris Berman,” Masiulionis said, referring to the legendary ESPN anchor.
He latched on to professional wrestling and created a show called “Monday Night Mayhem.” It initially aired on the radio station of his college, Buffalo State College.
“It was an incredible success and won many awards,” he said.
The program eventually transitioned to Internet podcasts.
“It became one of the first wrestling podcasts,” he said. “The show had quite a bit of popularity.”
The Big Mosh nickname was given him in part because at the time he weighed over 300 pounds. While engaging in a successful media enterprise, he suffered from self-esteem issues.
“In many respects, I felt lost and broken,” he said. “In many respects I didn’t know who I was. I felt as if I was wearing a mask. ... Wrestling provided a cathartic effect for me. It was always there for me.”
An experience during that period connected with Masiulionis. A friend, Dennis Dipaolo, the son of a famous wrestler and owner of a popular Italian restaurant in Buffalo, convinced Masiulionis and pro wrestlers to visit Children’s Hospital in Buffalo.
There, Masiulionis said, he saw the heartening effect that such contacts had on children who were going through cancer, dialysis treatment and recovery from surgery. The experience encouraged him to want to do more for children.
“The kids faces would always light up,” he said. “They would see these almost like mythical figures — the big, shiny gold belts, the muscle shirts. ... It just really made their day. That’s when a lot of the seeds were planted.”
Then, he went through several life-changing episodes. He developed some health problems. His grandmother, Jane Sajecki, with whom he was very close, died in August 2013.
He brought “Monday Night Mayhem” to a close.
“I felt the show had really run its course,” huge said. “The whole dynamic was changing.”
In the summer of 2015, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and fought his way to recovery.
That fall, he decided to orient the publicity company he had started to children’s literature and authors.
“Over time, I realized we’re all here for a reason,” he said. “It became increasingly clear for me that I was meant to do more with the kids myself.”
San Diego effect
A visit to the San Diego area after attending WrestleMania 21 in Los Angeles made a strong impression.
“I really felt at peace for the first time in my life when I was out here,” he said. “That really kind of told me something.”
Masiulionis moved to this region in October 2020 and plans to relocate from his present El Cajon home to the Encinitas area in the near future.
In his new career and exposure to children’s literature, Masiulionis rediscovered a childhood inspiration, the beloved Mr. Rogers, the host of the long-running PBS children’s television program Mister Rogers Neighborhood, a role model for his work with children.
“He wasn’t afraid to talk to kids, to create conversations with them and talk with them about important things, whether it be about love, kindness, compassion, empathy, understanding (and) even tough things such as death and grief and divorce,” he said.
Children and their families can get a taste of Masiulionis’ style during the May 14 reading, which will feature Rana Boulos’ “Pearl the Raindrop: The Water Cycle Journey”; followed by John Parra’s “Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son” on June 11; Jim Price’s “A Trip to the Park” on July 9 ; and “Oliver and the Wishing Star” by Jennifer Decker on Aug. 13.
Information on Masiulionis’ readings and activities can be found at the website prfromtheheart.com.
The 40-year-old hopes to expand his storytelling to other communities and create other venues benefiting children.
“I feel that just taking the time to read to them establishes a close connection,” he said. ”It establishes a heart-felt bond. And at the same time I don’t want any child to go through any sort of pain.
“But even if they’re going through some sort of pain, whether it be emotional or physical, to know that they’re loved and they’re cared for, they can move through it with grace and with ease and know that there’s people in their lives that really care about them.”
Meanwhile, Masiulionis said, he is working on his own children’s book.
“I really feel that we have the inner-child that lies within us,” he said. “When parents take the time to read to their little ones, not only do they have a closer relationship with their children, but they also take the time to become stronger within their own selves. They can heal their own childhood wounds in the process.”
Masiulionis speaks from experience: “I credit in many respects children’s books with helping to save my life.”
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