Locals invited to “Live United” through Day of Action, tutor opportunities

Anyone is welcome to Live United during this week's Day of Action or by signing up to impact a child through the Midlands Reading Consortium. Photo courtesy of the United Way of the Midlands.

Anyone is welcome to Live United during this week’s Day of Action or to sign up to impact a child through the Midlands Reading Consortium. (photo courtesy of the United Way of the Midlands)

Hundreds of volunteers are making a difference at every turn after asking the United Way of the Midlands how they personally  could help. However, as needs in the six-county service area (Richland, Lexington, Fairfield, Newberry, Orangeburg and Calhoun) continue to grow and change, the old adage of “the more the merrier” still rings true.

“Opportunities are always available,” said Director of Communications Joey Wallace.

Serving people from their community’s youngest residents up to senior citizens, people from all walks of life will join the efforts this week during the Day of Action. The UWM typically holds a spring and fall Day of Action each year to get new volunteers in the doors of local agencies and nonprofits and make a concentrated impact for those most in need.

After everyone else has put away their work gloves, UWM staffers are just getting started on providing vital services year-round.

Local programs are designed to address one of the three key areas of health, finances and education. Much of the financial side is done via the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, through which people can receive guidance to file their taxes, and the Midlands Housing Trust Fund, which creates affordable homes for working families and individuals.

Presently, UWM leadership is in the midst of expanding medical services through the Midlands Healthcare Collaborative. Instead of various low-cost services being available at multiple locations, the aim is to have more under one roof so that care is more readily accessible, especially to those with limited transportation. The alliance would make programs like the UWM dental clinic and diabetes care more effective.

“We know there will still be some gaps, and we’re trying to fill those,” said UWM President and CEO Mac Bennett. “The last place we want people to get non-emergent care is the emergency room.”

Many might not have the know-how to help out at the free medical clinic or to give a vision screening, but Director of Early Education and Policy Bunnie Ward is confident that volunteers have what it takes to be a part of the UWM’s education initiatives. Multiple programs are ongoing, and ones like the burgeoning Midlands Reading Consortium simply require an adult to give a little of his or her time.

“The kids benefit so much from the 1-on-1 interaction,” Ward said.

The MRC’s primary focus is getting each child reading on grade level by third grade. Up until that point, the student is learning to read, but children read to learn (and comprehend) from third grade forward. Any student who still is struggling with literacy can fall behind quickly.

In South Carolina, 39 percent of fourth-graders don’t read on grade level, making them four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to national data.

It seems like it would take an army of volunteers with a teaching or librarian background to solve this program locally, but the MRC’s format allows those who are willing to participate. Training is provided so everyone is working from a proven method, and the reading tutors spend approximately one hour a week with a selected student encouraging a love of reading and getting them to practice, practice, practice with their favorite books.

“This program has really taken off,” Ward said.

In fact, after the initial partnership with Richland One, MRC expanded last year to involve Lexington Two and Lexington-Richland Five. Volunteers are taking kids from barely being able to write their own names to being confident readers in 14 schools and one childcare center.

About 300 volunteers make up MRC today. Ward said the UWM does desire to see the program continue to grow but that the main focus is getting current participants up to their correct reading level first.

“We want to help them take a step forward,” she said.

Additional volunteers, along with book donations, are being accepted in order to impact more kids at the current MRC schools.

“Every one we get is another child we can help,” Wallace said.

In much the same way, the more people who sign up for the Day of Action on Sept. 20, the bigger the result will be for those agencies that desperately rely on volunteer help. About 300 have registered so far, and the UWM expects the total to reach 450 by the end of the week. With nearly 40 projects or locations on the list, that leaves only about 10 people per site.

“Our immediate goal is to help our partner agencies,” Wallace said. “But the Day of Action events are also to encourage a sense of community and make people aware.”

When they arrive at their site, volunteers are often surprised at what they find. Stereotypes have told them one thing about the people who receive aid from organizations like the UWM, but they usually see that the person on the other side of the counter at the free medical clinic or Harvest Hope Food Bank is just like them.

“This lets them see the diversity of the need,” Ward said.

Some intending to give just a couple of hours also find themselves a new niche to regularly volunteer. Communications Manager Whitney McCormac said she’s heard countless people tell her that they didn’t realize a certain issue was relevant in their cities and towns.

“These opportunities keep the community mindful of problems that are happening here,” she added.

The UWM site has several openings available for Day of Action. Volunteers can click a few times to send in their commitment. Beautification activities are included for Sept. 21, too, for those who can’t miss work.

People and organizations don’t have to wait until the bi-annual Day of Action to impact others. The United Way’s Get Connected sites can link up donors and volunteers with agencies that have specific needs. Nonprofits can post anything from a request for a board member to school supplies to baked goods and even jobs.

“Get Connected is a great tool for this community, especially for University of South Carolina students who need to volunteer,” McCormac said.

To find out more on volunteer opportunities and UWM programs, stop by Literacy Live, a new family-friendly event. Hosted at EdVenture on Sept. 17 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the education program campaign kickoff will feature children’s book authors, free food, music and more. The event is open to the public.

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