Bill Jones: Join a purely positive campaign – the United Way’s effort to strengthen community

Bill Jones - Guest columnist | November 18th, 2016 6:45 pm

Each day since the presidential election, there has been no shortage of banter about the campaign and the promises made. While most people have grown weary of the noise, at the United Way of Wyoming Valley, we are still campaigning!

No, not for an elective office, thank goodness, but on behalf of our kids, families and community.

Since our annual fundraising campaign kicked off in early September, I have given more than 70 presentations urging support for our work to reduce childhood poverty in the Wyoming Valley. As challenging as fundraising can be, I thoroughly enjoy every opportunity I have to engage others in discussion about our mission.

Recently, I bumped into a longtime donor who has been very generous to the United Way and the community. He is very aware of our activity, but admitted he was struggling to “connect the dots” and fully understand the United Way’s new long-term strategy. He asked for a concise explanation.

Despite the many changes since our founding in 1921, the United Way has and always will exist to improve the community we call home. Our focus on childhood poverty in the Wyoming Valley is an attempt to strengthen our community and improve lives by addressing a critical root cause of ever-increasing social service need.

Simply stated, we believe education is a key pathway out of poverty. Communities that have a higher high school graduation rate are usually stronger and healthier than those that have a lower graduation rate and a higher dropout rate. Studies show that over a lifetime, dropouts can cost society as much as $800,000 each in social service need. As such, one of our key goals over time is to attempt to raise area graduation rates.

Last month, the United Way of Wyoming Valley partnered with America’s Promise, the national organization founded by Gen. Colin Powell, and the Luzerne Intermediate Unit to host a GradNation Summit, a one-day conference to develop strategies to raise graduation rates. It was a wonderful event attended by nearly 250 educators, business and nonprofit leaders, government officials and parents. The summit focused on school readiness, family engagement, dropout prevention, and career awareness and readiness.

Research tells us that third-grade reading levels are a key predictor of graduation rates. National statistics suggest that 23 percent of students who are not proficient at reading as they come out of third grade become that class’s dropout rate. With that in mind, we are promoting reading through initiatives such as our partnership with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, partnerships with the Wilkes-Barre Area and Wyoming Valley West school districts, an annual children’s book drive, and a literacy kit project that benefited more than 250 low-income children who will be entering kindergarten.

We are also advocating for school attendance and truancy prevention, reducing the summer learning loss, and improving the quality of early childhood education throughout the Wyoming Valley.

We know that health issues impact child development and education. We are pursuing a number of initiatives related to hunger and food insecurity, health and developmental screenings, parenting and family-engagement skills, and child abuse and neglect prevention.

The United Way of Wyoming Valley has significantly changed, and we are leading in very different ways than we have in the past. We have narrowed our focus to increase our impact, and I appreciate when someone, like the very loyal donor who needed more clarity, takes interest in the important work we are doing.

Unlike the rhetoric of the national election, here’s the campaign promise we intend to keep: We will continue to pursue an aggressive agenda that aims to improve the odds for children and families, and strengthens the Wyoming Valley.

As we head toward Thanksgiving and the holiday season, know that we are thankful to all those who support our campaign and the work of the United Way!

Bill Jones

Guest columnist

Bill Jones is president and CEO of the United Way of Wyoming Valley. He can be reached at 570-829-6711 ext. 1230.