When the sun rose on the longest day of the year—at 5:40 a.m., no less—it shone its first rays on 30 United Way staff and volunteers industriously coloring, cutting and assembling large quantities of paper. Fueled by caffeine and upbeat music, they channeled their long-lost childhood talents in order to kick off a groundbreaking effort from United Way of Central Iowa: The first-ever Literacy Solstice, with the goal of convening 1,000 central Iowans to build 4,000 literacy kits for the kids in our community.

“In an unprecedented community-wide collaboration, we’re bringing together community members, businesses, nonprofits, government, service organizations, faith-based groups, labor, schools and retirement communities—all of whom care about the cause of childhood reading,” said Mary Sellers on the day of the event, June 20.


By 8:50 that evening, as the sun set over downtown and the strings lights of West End Architectural Salvage replaced the sun’s rays, 1,500 individuals had created 4,400 literacy kits at 27 sites across Polk, Dallas and Warren counties. With 15 hours of sunshine to light their efforts, these volunteers helped thousands of children take one more step on the road to reading proficiency, high school graduation and career success.

The plan

In honor of our 100th year in 2016, United Way launched READ to SUCCEED, a multiyear awareness and action campaign to increase third-grade reading proficiency in central Iowa to 90 percent.

From kindergarten through the end of third grade, students learn to read. After that, they must be able to read to learn. If they fall behind, it’s nearly impossible to catch up.

This one factor, the ability to read proficiently at the end of third grade, has long-term implications for individuals and for our community. Students who can’t read at grade level at the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out before they graduate.

Teaching a child to read take years of work from multiple people—teachers, family members, volunteers. There is no one shortcut that can do the job for us. But there are two majors obstacles children face, especially students from low-income families: a lack of books and reading time and a lack of engagement and interest in books. Literacy kits can help with both these deficiencies.

But literacy kits are time-consuming to make. They can’t just be ordered in bulk from Amazon or Walmart. They need to be made—by hand—by invested volunteers. And so a plan was born: to bring together these passionate people on one day to build thousands of literacy kits for struggling readers. United Way would need a lot of people and a lot of time. 15 hours might do it. 15 hours of the longest day of the year. Summer solstice, meet literacy.

The kits

When assembling literacy kits during Literacy Solstice, volunteers often found themselves faced with tasks that hadn’t attempted since elementary school. “Coloring is like riding a bike: it just comes back to you,” says Connie, a volunteer from Wells Fargo.

Each literacy kit comes with several pieces of paper to be colored, cut and assembled. This work can’t be automated—at least not without huge expense. Plus, when kids see the hand-colored cartoons and hand-written notes of encouragement from volunteers, they know that a stranger cared enough to make a kit just for them.


Each kit includes a book and related activities perfect for one-on-one interaction and imagination. Designed by literacy experts, the kits focus on skills that young children need when learning to read, while, at the same time, diving deeper into a book and its themes. For example, the kit for “Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons” asks children to practice counting, addition and subtraction while gluing buttons on a hand-colored shirt. They improve their motor skills while using yarn to sew a paper-plate button. They make predictions about what will happen to the book’s characters and learn to keep going in the face of loss.

On Literacy Solstice, volunteers made kits for six different books:

  • Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons (PreK – 3rd grade)
  • The Doorbell Rang (PreK – 3rd grade)
  • Up, Down and Around (PreK – 3rd grade)
  • The Life of a Butterfly (2nd grade and up)
  • The Magic Finger (3rd – 5th grade)
  • Minecraft (4th – 6th grade)

“Whoever designed the literacy kits did a fantastic job,” said Laureen Fant, a retired teacher and a member of Delta Sigma Theta who volunteered at Carver Elementary during Literacy Solstice. “It was fabulous. The kits were so organized. It was all laid out for us.”

All the kits made on Literacy Solstice were distributed that day and the day after to schools, day care and early learning programs and out-of-school and summer programs in central Iowa. (See the full list.) Hundreds of kits made in the morning even went home with kids that same day.

The volunteers

The assembly of 4,400 literacy kits in one day was monumental. But just as significant were the 1,500 volunteers from all walks of life who engaged with United Way of Central Iowa and learned about literacy efforts in the community.

“I learned that third grade is a marker for reading levels,” said Stacie Mosley from Wells Fargo. “I always appreciate facts like that. United Way does a great job sharing that kind of information about our community. I love that United Way always gives the WHYs behind the project.”


Literacy Solstice was an opportunity to share this awareness with people who may not have thought about reading levels since their own days in elementary school. Even volunteers with young children didn’t know the extent of the problem, especially for low-income families.

Many were shocked that one in five kids in central Iowa can’t read at grade level.

United Way of Central Iowa was fortunate in both the number and the scope of volunteers who participated in Literacy Solstice. The day started at Children and Family Urban Movement, brought together young professionals at the Science Center of Iowa and city officials at Urbandale Library, and included three different senior living communities. Midday was devoted to 13 area businesses, then faith-based groups and service organizations came together at Carver Elementary. The day ended at West End Architectural Salvage with United Way donors and volunteer leaders. Altogether, Literacy Solstice involved people who often collaborate and people who almost never support the same cause. They all used their hands to physically build something that would help kids learn to read.


 “The community coming together is so powerful,” said Deb Chiodo, an elementary school principal and a member of the United Way of Central Iowa education cabinet. “It’s a game-changer. All the people from different groups gaining increased awareness of third-grade reading.”

“Reading is the basis of everything we do,” said Judy, a resident of Edgewater, a WesleyLife retirement community. The woman next to her, Pat, agreed. “I think it’s important to help our littlest neighbors.”

The kids

Some of our little neighbors are in difficult situations. Their parents may work two or three jobs and have no time to read with them. Or they might not speak or read the English language. The kids might not have books in the house. Or they may be learning English at the same time they are learning to read.


“One thing is for certain: struggling readers are NOT stupid; they face many barriers—physical, mental, socioeconomic and cultural,” says Kate Bennett, United Way’s community impact officer, education. “And it is our duty as community members who care about the future of central Iowa to help them.”

Children from lower-income families hear 30 million fewer words by age 3 than their middle-class peers.

Literacy kits ca be especially effective for these kids because they are designed to pair a child with a caring adult volunteer who will read to the child and complete the activities with them. On Literacy Solstice, hundreds of volunteers got the chance to use the kits with kids after making them.

Because the kits ask the children and adults to think, imagine and answer personal questions together, these strangers often get to know each other better than you would expect after 45 minutes of acquaintance. At Carver Elementary in Des Moines, where adult volunteers used the kit, “The Life of a Butterfly,” conversations veered into subjects like morality, friendship and growing up. One volunteer, who was reading with two attentive boys, first bonded with them over a mutual love of the Iowa State Cyclones. But soon enough, they were discussing deeper subjects. “Love everybody,” the volunteer advised. “Love everybody in the whole world.” A little later: “It doesn’t matter how tall you are. It matters how big you are in your heart.”


Elsewhere at Carver, second-grader Ahiocea was excited by the book. “I like the butterfly when it hatches,” she said. She clutched the kit to her chest; it was already labeled with her name in big crooked letters. “I am happy because I can read my own book at home.”

Her adult volunteer, Laureen Fant, a retired teacher and current substitute, was thrilled by the experience—and amazed by the students’ enthusiasm. “The kids were just fluent. To see this, how the kids usually are at the end of the day, this is fantastic. They are orderly. They appreciated it; they loved it. This little girl in second grade wanted to take over the reading.”

Power Read

The relationships created at Carver in less than an hour are mere shadows of the strong bonds built through the Power Read program, a literacy and mentoring program that pairs volunteers and elementary school students to read together on a weekly basis. Through Power Read, Everybody Wins! Iowa and United Way of Central Iowa are partnering to provide reading and mentoring experiences to children who might not have one-on-one attention from an adult. 


One of the goals of Literacy Solstice was to recruit volunteers for Power Read—to give people a taste of an experience they could have every week during the school year. Plus, 750 of the kits made during Literacy Solstice were given to Everybody Wins! Iowa for use in the Power Read program in the fall, which is expanding to 18 schools in central Iowa.

“Our mission is to increase student success in school through experiences with caring volunteer reading mentors,” says Karen Ligas, executive director of Everybody Wins! Iowa. “There is so much research around how important it is for children to hear the English language spoken, a lot of research that shows that they can gain awareness of English and improvement in reading just by having people read out loud with them.”

Ligas provides a startling statistic: Children from middle-class families will start school knowing 1,000-1,700 words. Children from lower-income families will recognize only 25.

Power Read volunteers often say they get more out of the relationship than they put into it. They come to care deeply about the child and their future. And the child discovers that there is one more person rooting for them. That gives them confidence. So does an extra hour of reading practice a week.

“Sometimes the student’s self-perception is that they are not as good as their peers,” says Ligas. “But the growth that they make in that short-term school-year cycle is just amazing.”


Power Read is looking to attract a diverse set of volunteers; no previous education experience is required. At one school last year, a student and his mentor would read a book in English and then discuss it in Spanish. “It helps the students that they can be paired with someone who might have walked in their shoes,” says Ligas.

In the end, though, the mere presence of a caring adult on a consistent basis can make a big difference in a child’s life.

“It’s such an easy way to make an impact,” says Ligas. “Most volunteers who try it like it and end up coming back.”

Sign me up for Power Read!

The community

Literacy Solstice has already inspired more than 50 volunteers—and counting—to sign up for Power Read. United Way of Central Iowa is grateful for the enthusiasm for literacy shown by so many of the volunteers, as well as their commitment to the organization itself.


“What a wonderful accomplishment—to surpass your goal of 4,000 literacy kits by 10 percent!” says Judy Deutch of FBL. “It’s easy to volunteer at my own company and spend a little over an hour coloring, cutting and assembling. It takes incredible organization and dedication to plan this huge event.  I am so proud of United Way of Central Iowa. Keep up your vital work!”

But more than anything, Literacy Solstice was a demonstration of the excellence of the central Iowa community that we are all a part of.

“I’ve been reminded just how compassionate this city is and how people get behind the right cause,” says Sean Vicente, United Way of Central Iowa board member, executive committee. “All of us are very fortunate to live as we do and be in this community.”


Literacy Solstice was sponsored by:



Shirley Burgess

About The Author: Shirley Burgess

Shirley Burgess is the former Volunteer Engagement Officer for United Way of Central Iowa.