Making youth literacy a priority

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”


The former slave and abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, understood the power of reading at a very deep and personal level. Today the truth of Frederick’s comment is confirmed by research that shows that good basic reading skills are fundamental not merely to academic success, but to success in life. That’s why United Way has joined with Coeur Alaska and other community partners to promote programs that help young children build their reading skills.

The LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program, now in its second year, provides volunteer reading tutors for Juneau School District students in kindergarten through the third grade. Adult volunteers are paired with students who need individual encouragement and attention for two, 30-minute sessions each week. Tutors help students practice reading aloud and provide simple instruction on the alphabet, phonics and other key reading skills. United Way’s reading tutor coordinator trains the program’s volunteers and matches them with students, while Coeur Alaska supplies the primary funding for the program. Coeur employees also serve as volunteers.

“We encourage our employees as well as other community members to join us in supporting this program,” said Wayne Zigarlick, Coeur Alaska’s vice president and general manager. “Just one hour a week is all it takes to make a difference.”

Additional volunteers are being added this year via a recruitment campaign begun by Juneau’s local Rotary clubs as part of their new program “Opening Doors Through Literacy: A Capital Idea.”

United Way also supports Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library through a community impact grant. Singer Dolly Parton started this popular program in 1996. With the help of local sponsors, the Imagination Library sends free books to children from birth to age 5. The first book is always The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. After that, books are sent based on the age of the child. The Association for the Education of Young Children-Southeast Alaska (AEYC) helps parents enroll their children throughout Southeast Alaska – some before they even leave Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Southeast Alaska’s Imagination Library currently serves more than 2,000 children. In November, First Lady Sandy Parnell delivered the Southeast program’s 100,000th book to a local child. Data compiled statewide on kindergartners’ reading readiness shows dramatic improvements for most Southeast communities with established Imagination Library programs, especially compared to Alaska communities that do not have one. Just $30 provides a book a month to a child for one year, or $150 provides books to a child for all five years. Best Beginnings in Alaska provides matching grants and helps new communities get started.

United Way also helps build children’s reading skills through a Community Impact Grant to the Southeast Regional Resource Center (SERRC) Learning Connection to support SERRC’s Family Literacy program at Juneau’s Gruening Park. That program provides a variety of supports to families of students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, all focused on fostering children’s reading skills and school readiness. These include an Afterschool Homework Club, in-school one-on-one support for more than 100 students, and early childhood literacy activities for pre-schoolers while their parents participate in adult education classes. This program also sponsors Family Nights for parents and children that combine fun – activities like swimming, egg hunts, and playing homemade board games – with education-related activities such as registering for Head Start.

United Way’s President, Wayne Stevens, said, “United Way constantly seeks ways to support our partner agencies’ programs. One way we do that is to help them coordinate with each other. We all get so much more bang for our buck when we work together. That’s what we mean when we say ‘LIVE UNITED.’”

Community members can help United Way promote the synergistic effects of all the reading programs described here by making a donation to United Way. Donate on-line at or by calling 463-5530. To learn more about the LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program or to become a tutor, contact the program coordinator at To support the Imagination Library or to enroll a child, go to or call 789-1235. To learn more about SERRC’s Family Literacy program, call 780-6706.


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