The Ottumwa Courier

January 11, 2013

United Way announces goals for 2013

Increasing literacy, fighting hunger main focus

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Every year, the United Way of Wapello County and the community work together on funding worthy causes. Thursday night, community leaders and decision makers learned the United Way’s focus for 2013.

Two of their goals center around helping kids learn to read and helping get food to the hungry, said Desiree Johnson, executive director of the local United Way.

“Close to 15 percent of Wapello County residents are food insecure; one in four children do not have enough food to eat,” Johnson said Thursday as she prepared for the annual meeting.

The United Way partners with the Iowa Food Bank Association and the Food Bank of Southern Iowa in Ottumwa to bring awareness to the issue of hunger in Wapello County and southern Iowa.

Those hungry kids are going to have trouble paying attention to what the teacher is saying, she wrote in the speech she planned to share Thursday night. But the research shows, she said, that helping with early-grade reading is a logical place to put organization resources.

Children generally learn to read until third grade. After that, the course work gets more challenging. By the fourth grade, they should be “reading to learn.”

Students who don’t read well have difficulty keeping up.

It’s so bad, in fact, educators say reading ability in younger children is a predictor of later success in  school careers. Poor readers in elementary school are four times more likely to drop out of high school later in life.

While the community has been supportive of United Way fundraisers and goals, Johnson said to be truly successful in achieving change, the community needs to pull in the same direction with each other, not against each other.

When they’ve teamed up with other community action agencies, they’ve seen improvements in the quality of life locally. So another of the United Way’s goals is to increase collaboration with other agencies seeking to help the community.

Through communication, she believes, groups can come to some sort of agreement on what is most important to the health of the Wapello County area. Then they can improve the community as a team — pushing or pulling in the same direction.  

“What United Ways do well is recruit people with passion, expertise and resources to make a difference. But that’s not enough. It takes a whole community. [That] means working collaboratively on communitywide and community-based strategies that can drive real change — not [just] tweaks of [the] status quo,” she said.