United Way Goal: Improve third grade reading comprehension by students of all abilities and interests.

By the time they get to the third grade, eight out of 10 children who grow up in low-income households cannot read at grade-level. In Delaware County, half the households are poor. In Muncie, it’s six out of 10.

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Improving that percentage among third-graders is the laser focus of the United Way of Delaware County, which funds 28 nonprofits working to change that statistic by 2024.

“Reading is everything,” says Nancy Carlson, a retired Ball State University journalist, who for the last two years has volunteered every Thursday afternoon at South View Elementary School to read to third graders.

Miss Nancy, as children in her Reading Club know her, has a message to anyone wondering whether what she’s doing is making a difference or whether a donation or volunteer time will really move the needle.

“These children are not lost. They may be 9 or 10 years old and experienced drug and crime and awful things in their houses but they are not lost children,” she said. “There is so much hope for a kid who can latch on to the joy of reading and who can travel with those words and see adventures.”

Carlson, who has earned a reputation for taking on some of the hardest children to reach, attributes a lack of adult interaction to what may be long-lasting damage.

“They are on screens a lot. A lot of kids this age have cell phones,” Carlson said, which is fine except “they’re not seeing words. They don’t know iconic things, like Seattle has a Space Needle or the Eifel Tower is in Paris. They don't know because they’re not reading about these things and these places.”

But hope comes in the responses of the children themselves.

She tells the story of a student who wanted to know where the city his grandmother lived – in Marion – really is. Carlson brought in a map.

“He wanted to know where Marion was,” Carlson said. “The problem with a GPS, you see the world in a tiny cell phone. This called for getting on your hands and knees, and spreading out the map. He thought it was so amusing how it folded. He had never seen a foldable map.”

Carlson sees further promise in consistency.

“It’s so, so, so rewarding. If nothing else, it’s rewarding to have a one-on-one with a little kid who can count on me that I will be there every week,” she says. “If you go every week, they learn to trust you and believe you. They light up when they see me not because I’m so great, but because I came back.”

There’s another story Carlson likes to tell. This one about one of those “difficult” kids. “Everybody thought he was bad. The third graders thought he was bad,” she said. “So, I got “Frankie,” (not his real name). He had absolutely no interest in reading.”

Reading Club takes place in hallways of the schools. Readers and their children line the hallways, backs up against cinder-block, heads in books, reading. Besides South View, Reading Clubs are in Grissom and Longfellow elementary schools.

Generally, adults are not permitted alone with children in classrooms. It’s a matter of safety and one Carlson fully endorses. But on this day, “Frankie” was distracted in the hallway and he spotted a vacant classroom.

“I asked a teacher if we could use that room,” she said. “We sat on the floor and he immediately spotted a NERF football. That’s all he could look at in that room. ‘Miss Nancy,’ let’s play football.’ ”

“I said, ‘oh, no. I’m not athletic. I never really have been.”

‘C’mon, Miss Nancy, go out for a pass,’ he insisted. “I said, oh, okay, I’ll try. And he tossed the ball and I said, oh no, football isn’t really my thing. I’m here to read.”

“He came over and touched my shoulder, ‘Miss Nancy,’ he said, ‘you can be whatever you want to be.’ ”

For Carlson, those words of encouragement spoke volumes. “Some important adult in his life told him that. It registered. He believed that. He counseled me that I could play football, if I set my mind to it.”

That “difficult” kid in Reading Club personified United Way, Carlson says. “It’s a hand on a shoulder and encouraging words to an entire community. ‘You can be whatever you want to be.’ ”

Emerging leaders put trust in United Way

The program is designed to teach emerging community leaders about the value of philanthropy.

Perhaps that is why the 2018 cohort of the Shafer Leadership Academy’s “Emergence Personal Foundations of Leadership” chose the United Way of Delaware County to receive the fruits of their labor.

After spending 30 hours together over the course of eight weeks, this group of 35 selected the United Way of Delaware County as the recipient of the lessons learned – their time, talent and treasure. The group used their $1,000 Shafer grant and bought supplies to prepare literacy kits for Muncie’s kindergartners, and an anonymous classmate upped the stakes by agreeing to contribute another $1,000 if the rest of the class could raise $1,000. In the end, there were 11 donors who gave $375. Add that to the match and the class gave $750, and Shafer contributed another $1,000.

“This group of people immediately brought up United Way as the place to have the greatest impact,” said Mitch Isaacs, Executive Director of Shafer Leadership Academy. “Also, important to remember is these are emerging leaders, community members in their 20s and 30s. They don’t have a lot of giving power. Yet!”

The class is more than halfway toward meeting the challenge match and Isaacs said by the time of the United Way kickoff in September, he thinks’ they’ll be there.

There have been 450 students graduate from the program over the last 11 years. That’s 450 emerging community leaders interested in greater personal development and community involvement.

On the final day of class, students are instructed to find a problem and pitch a solution.

“You’ve spent seven weeks together,” Isaacs said. “How would you use the skills you’ve learned. The group came back with five projects and was going to vote to see who would get the $1,000, but then the real collaboration happened.”

The class discussed how each of their identified problems had common themes. Help children at Muncie Community Schools. Help children with literacy. On their own, the group opted to collaborate rather than vote for the issue they individually wished to support. Collectively, they identified United Way of Delaware County as addressing all of those themes.

“United Way is working hard to put children on a pathway out of poverty through better educational outcomes. Having the 2018 Emergence class see this as the best investment for their class is really encouraging,” said Jenni Marsh, United Way President and CEO. “Through this experience, they advocated, volunteered and gave - they truly Live United.”

Emergence is designed to teach people to lead, and that means leading by collaboration, by working together to solve problems. “There’s no question that’s what happened with this group,” Isaacs said. “And there’s evidence, Isaacs said, that graduates go on to have great impact in the community.

“Data shows within five years, 75 percent of our graduates take a leadership role, either they get involved in Little League, are a deacon in church, serve on a not for profit board, or run for political office.”

Voices (Re) United take stage to end generational poverty.

There was magic in the air as five area musicians, all with their own demanding schedules, came together for a marathon rehearsal – the first of several planned -- for the upcoming Voices (Re) United concert in downtown Muncie.

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It’s been 11 years but it felt like just yesterday, they said. Musicians picked up where they left off in 2007, which was the last time Cook and Belle, Jennie DeVoe, Keith O’Neal, Jennifer Stanley, and Carl Storie performed together for a cause they all believe in – helping battle generational poverty by supporting United Way’s focused plan to have all third-graders reading at grade level by 2024.

“United Way is a champion for struggling children and families. To be part of Delaware County’s most important fundraising effort is not only a gift to others, but to all of us who get to share our talent for such an important cause,” said DeVoe, a Muncie-native and Voices United artist. “We hope everyone wants to be part of the United Way solution. We want to inspire others to lend a hand, their voice, and their money to those who fall on hard times and struggle,” she said.

Storie, who is battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma, wanted to be back for the concert because he knows, more than ever, the importance of lifting up those who can't do it on their own. Even though chemo treatments take a toll, Carl is determined to be standing alongside the other artists in support of the community.

Voices United, established in 2004, ran for five consecutive years, played to sold-out houses at Emens Auditorium, and raised more than $250,000. But even more important, the performances raised awareness for the cause.

“At the time, we thought five years was enough,” said Casey Stanley, the Voices United mastermind and husband to artist Jennifer Stanley. “It’s a lot of work for all of them, including nights, weekends, and many hours of preparation. But we think the cause is important. Each genuinely believes in the cause.”

On the second Thursday in September (Sept. 13th) in downtown Muncie, there is no cover charge to come watch Voices (Re) United kick off the annual fundraising campaign for United Way. In fact, the artists hope what you might have paid to get into a concert could be the inspiration for an annual payroll deduction or one-time contribution to United Way.

The concert will include two sets – the first an opportunity to feature each artist more individually and the second which includes classic tunes by your favorite artists, performed together as the Voices United team. The musicians are singularly talented, but it is their combined performance that makes the magic, that makes great things happen.

“It’s like United Way itself,” Casey Stanley said. “United Way, by purposefully working with 28 nonprofit programs to address early childhood education, are able to move the needle for a single, great cause: end generational poverty by addressing third-grade reading level attainment. Our community, rallying together through United Way, can accomplish big, bold things.”

Today, nearly half of Delaware County households live in poverty or are one crisis away from it. In Muncie, the numbers are 6 in 10. A new statewide report shows Delaware County is home to more children living in poverty than any other county in the state.

It’s often a vicious generational cycle. These working families face obstacles in reaching health, education, and financial stability.

“The community’s future is at stake,” said Jenni Marsh, president and CEO of United Way of Delaware County. “But we have a plan toward a prosperous future for Delaware County. With a bold goal of having all third graders reading at grade level by 2024, we are already making great strides.”

Since 1925, the Delaware County community has given more than $275 million (in today’s dollars) to the United Way to provide a lifeline to its neighbors in need.

“Voices United is not only an opportunity to sing and play some great music, reunite with great friends, and allow us to help raise money for educating our young people, but it brings our community together to focus and celebrate the bright future that’s in store for all of us as we unite our hearts, resources, and efforts to live united,” said Bishop Keith Oneal, the lead pastor at Destiny Christian Church and a new member of the Muncie Community Schools Board.

The concert, sponsored by Ball State University, Magna, Old National Bank and Ontario Systems, is from 6:30 to 9 p.m. with brief remarks from Jenni Marsh, United Way president and chief executive officer, 2018 Campaign Chair Jeff Lang and other community leaders.

Last year’s event drew more than 2,000 to the downtown. Once again, Local brewers, The Heorot, Elm Street, and The Guardian Brewing Company will be on hand.

This is the only kind of event like this they ever play. But they do it because the work is transformative.

Organizers say be prepared for something even more at the Sept. 13 concert. They’ll only say, it’s “a surprise,” or expect a “memorable musical experience.”

“We loved the first five Voices United concerts, but we feel like this will be even more fun,” said Michelle Cook, half of the Cook and Belle duo who is performing. “On Walnut Street, we will be so close to the people, it will be a serious party!”

New breed of company executives takes on United Way cause

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A growing group of young, ambitious early-career professionals are among today’s foot soldiers of the Loaned Executives program, a longtime component of the annual fundraising campaign for United Way of Delaware County but one that had waned over the years.

These are the men and women whose job is to make the ask.

Once the domain of community stalwarts, the last two years has birthed a new generation of United Way pitch men and women – many of whom are new to United Way. They meet with company CEOs and small business owners to tell the United Way story.

In Delaware County, nearly half live in poverty; in the city, it’s six in 10 families whose low income fits the federal guidelines for poor. A recently released report shows more children in Delaware County live in poverty than any other county in the state.

It’s a generational problem that United Way has taken aim at through its support of early childhood education, specifically programs that increase third-grade level reading attainment, a key benchmark for success later in life.

As grim as those statistics may sound, the money raised for United Way supports 28 programs raise money for 26 nonprofits throughout the county that have a tie to the central goal of ending generational poverty.

Ball State University Associate Professor Kristen McCauliff and Muncie native, Voices United performer and entrepreneur Jennifer Stanley are the first lieutenants of the Loaned Executives, and they’ve developed programming fit for a world class sales operation.

“Fundraising is a huge part of every occupational landscape,” said McCauliff. “The loaned executives program is a great place to explore and stretch. It’s awesome to just bring so many creative professionals together.”

The skills the “LEs,” as they are called, learn in a series of workshops not only will benefit the United Way fundraising campaign but the loaned executives will return to their employers with sharpened skills and more focus about who they are and what they can achieve when they have a purpose in mind.

It is that “power of purpose” that one presenter, Wil Davis, co-founder of Ontario Systems and now President of Ball State’s Innovation Corp., used to inspire the loaned executives.

Davis, who also is founder and principal for his consultant company, Noble Why, helps organizations foster passionate, purposeful, and productive cultures – a Cultures of Excellence – where there is both an individual and collective pride in the work being accomplished.

“It is about living intentionally,” said Stanley, Davis’ daughter. “Are you doing things on purpose and finding those things you are passionate about, then aligning your life around those things.”

Such intention is what ultimately will bring positive change to the community, she said.

“Our two major goals this year,” says Stanley, “is to take the momentum from last year and keep it moving forward. We want to build on what’s been done.”

United Way surpassed its goal by nearly 20 percent, raising $1.4 million last year. This year’s goal is expected to be announced in September. “Our second goal is a new element. We want the loaned executives to network with each other, build relationships and work collaboratively.”

That’s why after every training session, there’s a happy hour in a local pub or brewery.

Jeff Lang, the 2018 campaign chair, says his first foray into community life in Muncie when he moved here in the ‘90s was as a loaned executive.

The connections made then paid off later. His networking benefited the community but it also benefited himself, personally.

“United Way is solving problems with a depth and breadth that not everyone knows about,” Stanley said.

The men and women from companies all over the community are telling the United Way story, and they’re engaging with others like themselves, who have ambitions like themselves, who want to live a life of purpose, like they do.

Jeff Lang Named as 2018 Campaign Chair

Jeff Lang Named as 2018 Campaign Chair

Jeff Lang remembers sitting in the audience at Cornerstone Center for the Arts for last year’s wrap-up rally of the 2017 fundraising campaign for United Way of Delaware County.

Casey Stanley, known for the production value he brings to any stage, used a drum roll to announce that the campaign had exceeded the goal but not his expectations. Lang remembers thinking to himself, “Boy, I wouldn’t want to be the campaign chair that follows that guy.”

But life has a way of putting you where you need to be when you’re needed most.