United Way campus actions encourage students across Port Arthur


United Way campus actions encourage students across Port Arthur

from the Port Arthur News, July 25, 2023  

For more than 15 years the United Way has worked in the early literacy arena with a focus on our youngest readers.

In 2018 the organization began a review of community needs, service gaps and how the United Way could mobilize to meet those needs. Less than a year later United Way launched its first initiative, Super Readers.  

The Super Readers initiative was different from many literacy programs in that it focuses on first graders, a younger age than the average literacy program. Super Readers is in partnership with local schools and works as a support of the Accelerated Reading program.

The program was offered to all local public schools in Mid and South Jefferson County, and the program has been accepted in all Port Arthur Independent School District elementary campuses and Sabine Pass.  

Super Readers was a starting point for our early literacy programs. Last year we added Story Time with United Way. The idea for story time grew from virtual readers participating in Read Across American Story Time with another United Way in Texas.

The United Way wanted to develop the idea into something beyond a one-day program.

“We recognized that an ongoing library of Story Time volunteers reading could have a multitude of benefits for our community. The Program offers support for the kids that want bedtime stories but with working schedules, home demands, or literacy barriers their adults could use such a program for added support,” said Janie Johnson, United Way of Mid & South Jefferson County CEO.  

United Way also promotes the resource to teachers for classroom support. For the last week, the United Way has invited local community members to schedule a reading time with their favorite children’s books at their office.  

“It has been amazing to see the excitement of the readers to share their stories and support literacy,” Johnson said.

“Our youngest reader was an elementary student as well as the many well-seasoned readers, totaling 35 readers. That is what this program and the early literacy initiatives are all about, supporting young readers with a skill that will support and bring joy throughout their life.”  

The United Way of Mid & South Jefferson County literacy initiative also expanded with two additional programs last year at participating schools with the placement of Book Vending Machines and the Summer Reading Palooza.  

Four Book Vending Machines (BVM) were placed on campuses last school year to support literacy. The BVM program is designed to be used as an award for meeting student goals, good behavior, or if a student is needing encouragement.

Teachers have Inchy the Bookworm Tokens for students to use in the BVMs that host a variety of books that match the ages of all students on campus. This week, four additional BVMs are being delivered to participating schools.  

In May the United Way held its annual Summer Reading Palooza at the participating schools. The Palooza works to support summertime reading in the youngest readers in kindergarten and first grade.  

Bags with the Super Readers logo were filled with books and a bookmark and delivered to students with the challenge to share the books with others when they were done with them.  

The first grader’s bookmark congratulated them on a successful year in the Super Reader program while the kindergarten bookmark introduced the students to the first-grade-focused program, both also highlighted Story Time with United Way QR codes for their summertime enjoyment.

“Through Super Readers, Book Vending Machines, and Summer Reading Palooza we were able to place just over 9,000 books in the hands of students during the last school year and hope to at least double that number this year,” Priscilla Ochoa said.  

Ochoa is the marketing and community engagement director and developed the Super Reader initiative that was the foundation for the current early literacy platform.  

In 2020 the United Way launched several other initiatives to support the community and help fill gaps in service. Known for providing grants to other nonprofits the organization noted the foundation of every United Way mission is to service the individual needs of the community they serve.  

For the United Way of Mid and South Jefferson County that commitment led to a change in business plan that still includes the traditional grant program as a part of their work but is no longer the sole focus of the organization.

United Way now hosts a total of 9 additional initiatives, including early literacy. Other initiatives focus on workforce readiness, food insecurities, childhood development, volunteerism, and community engagement.  

All United Way programs relate to their focus on education, health, and household stability.  

“The United Way is a unique organization in that our purpose is to identify the needs in our community and unite & mobilize the community to respond,” Johnson said.  

“Our work in early literacy and especially Story Time with the United Way is a wonderful example of how we work to achieve that goal.”