Many factors affect early learning – beginning at birth.
Children and families must have their basic needs met, have access to quality early learning experiences so they are ready for Kindergarten, and must engage in literacy-promoting experiences.
Though these are essential building blocks, many children in our community lack critical resources and opportunities, which can inhibit their ability to grow their love of reading and literacy skills, an essential indicator for later success in school.
When COVID-19 forced schools to close in-person learning and shift to virtual classrooms, United Way of Greater Portland’s (UWGP) concern for these vulnerable students was heightened. Families no longer had access to community libraries, and many did not have libraries at home.
In response to the shift to virtual classrooms, UWGP contacted school districts to participate in addressing student needs through aligning resources to help distribute books to high need families in South Portland, Portland, and Westbrook. These efforts addressed multiple needs of children and families, including supporting literacy, helping ease the strain of physical distancing on families and resulting stress, and engendering a love of books outside of the classroom work directly connected to several Thrive2027 Goal 1 strategies.
To ensure every student had books at home, Westbrook School Department (WSD) began distributing book bags every Wednesday when families picked up meals. United Way of Greater Portland partnered with WSD to ensure that this opportunity would be extended until the end of the school year, contributing funds that helped purchase an additional 1,000 books. bolstering WSD’s program capacity to distribute book bags to 150 families.
Portland Public Schools (PPS) recognized the need to innovatively engage students who otherwise were struggling to connect with the school and their teachers virtually. Adapting their Summer Reads model, PPS launched the Spring Reads program to directly mail 1,206 books and translated letters to 600 students across Portland Elementary Schools. Brick & Beam Society, an individual giving group of UWGP, sponsored this program through their COVID-19 Community Support Campaign. UWGP volunteers worked with Longfellow Book Store and PPS to prepare the translated materials and envelopes to be mailed to students.
SOUTH PORTLAND RESPONSE:
With a high immigrant population in South Portland, the South Portland School Department (SPSD) saw a need to connect with English Language Learner (ELL) families to support and engage those families during at-home learning. UWGP purchased 270 high-quality, culturally diverse books that SPSD teachers drop-off at ELL student homes along with a bag of food from the Locker Project. South Portland Superintendent, Ken Kunin shared in his weekly update, “I had the privilege of working with a number of our ELL staff, our Assistant Superintendent and our Director of Community Partnerships to deliver books and food to 60 families of ELL students. The books were part of a Brick and Beam United Way grant and the boxes of food were from the Locker Project. While we have delivered hundreds of boxes of Locker Project food to families at our five meal sites, it was a special treat to visit families (masked and at a safe distance of course). Planning and worrying, both of which I have been doing a good deal of, can be isolating. It was good to be reminded of the “why” of our work.”
As the needs and challenges facing our community continue to evolve, United Way of Greater Portland will also continue to work with local school districts and partners to understand needs and create ways to support families and their children, recovering, rebuilding, and reimagining together for a thriving future.
For more information about Thrive2027, or how you can be the ONE to make a difference in your community visit thrive2027.org.