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Thursday, Feb 7, 2019

Ballad Health and United Way partner to help children’s reading skills

Seven United Way organizations announced today that they are joining efforts with Ballad Health in a pilot initiative to increase grade-level reading and improve reading proficiency for the region’s children.

The seven organizations from SWVA and NETN include: United Way of Bristol TN/VA, United Way of Elizabethton/Carter County, United Way of Greene County, United Way of Hawkins County, United Way of Greater Kingsport, United Way of Washington County, TN, and United Way of Southwest Virginia.

“We believe this partnership will have a huge impact on the community as we work together with our local schools to improve childhood literacy across the region,” said Alan Levine, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Ballad Health. “Ballad Health is committed to promoting strong starts for kids, and reading achievement is an essential element that every child needs in order to be positioned for future health and success.”

In addition to the partnership with United Way, Ballad Health also provides B.E.A.R. (Being Engaged to Achieve Reading) Buddies – a program started through the Children’s Resource Center of Niswonger Children’s Hospital. B.E.A.R. Buddies pairs volunteer mentors with elementary school students in kindergarten through third grade who are approximately six months or more behind their grade level for reading. The student and mentor meet at least once a week, either at their school or the Boys & Girls Club, for an hour-long session. During that time, they read books provided by B.E.A.R. Buddies, or the students can select titles of interest.

The seven United Ways are piloting the following initiatives with Ballad Health’s support:

  • Tutoring and educational programming designed to raise children’s reading level scores in school systems;
  • Training on trauma-informed care for teachers and caregivers;
  • United WE READ, which engages, empowers and equips all children and families using tools and strategies to build a literacy-rich culture;
  • Reading volunteers brought digitally into the classroom through a computer program called Vello; and
  • A region-wide chronic absence initiative offering mini-grants and a regionally focused online attendance toolkit across 17 school districts in Southwest Virginia.

Travis Staton, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Southwest Virginia, said, “Chronic absenteeism, which is missing 10% or more of the school year for any reason, can predict a child’s ability to master reading by the end of third grade. These early absences can add up quickly, and can decrease the time a child has to develop critical literacy skills students need to succeed in school.”

In a study on the impact of absences on third-grade reading scores, researchers found that only 17% of children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and grade 1 were proficient readers by the end of grade 3, compared to 64% of regularly attending students. An alarming number of children—about 67% nationwide and more than 80% of those from low-income families—are not proficient readers by the end of third grade.

The initiatives will be supported by a $300,000 investment — $100,000 from the United Way agencies, $100,000 from the Ballad Health Foundation, and $100,000 from contributions made by Ballad Health team members during the health system’s 2018 team member campaign. In addition, Ballad Health has created incentives for team members to volunteer as B.E.A.R. Buddies mentors by offering to donate $200 per volunteer to a charity of the team member’s choosing if at least 500 team members sign up to volunteer. Team members can choose for their contribution to go to Niswonger Children’s Hospital, the Team Member Emergency Fund, or the United Way. Donations directed toward the United Way will be directed back into community reading initiatives, creating additional support for the program.

“Our school system values our partnership with United Way. The success of our children begins at an early age but schools cannot do this alone,” said John Ferguson, superintendent of Scott County Schools. “It takes everyone; family, friends and the community. Support from United Way complements the work of our educators, all focused on building a better tomorrow for our children.”

This collaboration will join a variety of United Way regional efforts already in place improve reading, such as:

  • United Way of Bristol TN/VA’s Reading Buddies program
  • United Way of Elizabethton/Carter County’s creation of Literacy Advisory Council
  • United Way of Greene County’s Older to Younger mentoring program
  • United Way of Hawkins County’s support of the Boys & Girls Club’s summer reading program
  • United Way of Greater Kingsport’s United We Read program
  • United Way of Washington County, TN’s Vello program
  • United Way of Southwest Virginia’s attendance initiative as part of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.


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