United Way books

United Way staff are photographed with a book distribution display at Hawthorne Elementary in October 2021. United Way donated 7,850 books in 2021 to elementary students to help address COVID-19 disruptions in their education.

COVID-19 has disrupted learning efforts for students both locally and across the country with many students missing school due to illness or temporary school closures.

One local organization is helping eastern Idaho students recover some gaps in their education by donating nearly 8,000 books to children through a book donation program.

United Way of Idaho Falls and Bonneville County donated 7,850 books to elementary students through its Ready. Set. READ! program, according to a Dec. 29 Facebook post. The organization distributed 3,000 books to elementary students in Teton, Clark, Lemhi, Bonneville and Jefferson counties in December, said United Way President and CEO Christine Wiersema.

“Literacy is a building block for kids,” Wiersema said. “If they’re reading by third grade, that is a huge lift for them to go on and have success at other grade levels.”

Providing at-home access to books for low-income children is an important part of the program. According to the United Way’s website, low-income homes “average only one book for every 300 children. By comparison, in middle and high-income homes, each child has an average of 50 books.”

The program started in spring 2021 and United Way acquired a grant to help counter learning loss students have experienced since the pandemic began. The grant provides funding for United Way to provide books and STEM kits to kids in its summer feeding program and through its LIVE United Summer Concert Series.

The grant will continue this year and Wiersema said United Way is committing to donating 15,000 books across the seven counties it serves in 2022.

The books range across all genres so the program can apply to any elementary student. Wiersema said United Way staff cleaned out Costco’s literature section several times to acquire books.

“Reading is truly opening the doors of curiosity for children so we wanted to have a wide variety of options,” she said.

Addressing COVID-19 related learning loss is an emphasis for many school districts in Idaho, including Idaho Falls School District 91 and Bonneville Joint School District 93. The districts have established programs to help students who had their education disrupted by the pandemic. Those programs include after-school intervention programs for students who may be struggling academically.

In October, United Way participated at the Hawthorne Elementary School Family Resource Night to provide books to students. Wiersema said the organization also visited Roberts Elementary School to distribute books. Additionally, United Way distributes books through its nonprofit partners, the YMCA and Idaho National Laboratory’s Christmas for Families program.

Some of District 91’s afterschool programs are funded by United Way, including kindergarten bootcamp — a kindergarten readiness program for young children — and the S.O.A.R. Club, which seeks to help students to learn essential academic and social skills while meeting supportive role models.

Ready. Set. READ! is an opportunity for many of the districts’ elementary students to have access to books at home that they normally wouldn’t have due to financial constraints. According to the Idaho State Department of Education, 36% of District 91’s students come from low-income families.

A 2011 study published by the American Educational Research Association found students who can’t read at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who reads proficiently by that time. The effects of not being able to read proficiently are worse for students from low-income backgrounds, as the study found they are 13 times less likely to graduate on time than their proficient and wealthier peers.

Literacy affects more than just schooling. The United Way’s website said 85% of children in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.

United Way’s next project is to create libraries for its nonprofit partners including The Haven and Family Crisis Center. More information on the organization’s work and ways to donate or volunteer is available on its website unitedwayif.org

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