Readers in the Heights book distribution
Readers in the Heights book distribution. Photo courtesy United Way of San Diego County

By Ian N.D. Gordon

COVID-19 has made an already challenging situation for children and families experiencing economic hardships even worse. But nonprofits like United Way of San Diego County have pivoted-in-partnership to address our community’s most pressing needs.

One such example is Readers in the Heights, a United Way-organized summer reading initiative hosted by City Heights Community Development Corporation and the Karen Organization of San Diego. With key support from Words Alive and eight other community partner organizations, we found a way to keep kids in City Heights excited about learning while at home.

What made it work? The key was establishing a personal connection with an entire family, not just their children—and leveraging each partner’s expertise to give families the type of support they needed for their kids to read.

Meeting Multiple Needs

Too many City Heights families already faced multiple obstacles before the pandemic, including language barriers, food insecurity, and limited Internet connectivity. The average monthly income for a family of four is between $1,600 and $2,000. This is in San Diego, where the median rent alone is now roughly $1,664.

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Over 42 percent of City Heights residents are immigrants, many of them resettled refugees. This year, Readers in the Heights’ participants spoke twelve different primary languages at home, including Karen, Burmese, Spanish, and Arabic.

Rather than try to guess how we could support Readers in the Heights’ participants in this challenging environment, United Way convened community partners and engaged them in a process for determining how to effectively adapt Readers in the Heights during the COVID-19 pandemic. We decided to first connect individually with the families that we serve to understand their needs and interests for their child’s learning this summer. Then, we reimagined the entire initiative, pairing strategically crafted at-home reading activities with individualized attention and optional online content, while supporting the entire family and making it engaging and fun for the kids.

To provide services such as in-language support for parents and face coverings for kids, we helped partner organizations merge their areas of expertise in new ways. Importantly, we focused less on reading scores and more on qualitative markers of how families’ lives are changing, such as the quality of their at-home libraries and family reading habits.

A Leg Up During a Trying Time

The experience of Blanca and her 7-year-old son Marko is an example of this qualitative approach. Even before COVID-19 forced City Heights schools online, Marko struggled with reading. “When he got stuck on a word, he would just give up on it,” Blanca recalls. As the pandemic dragged into the summer, Blanca knew Marko and his siblings Nia, 9, and Cashton, 3, needed help to keep their learning on track.

Ian Gordon
Ian Gordon

We had families like Blanca’s in mind when we quickly changed Readers in the Heights from a camp-like setting to an at-home, family-focused model. In addition to vital literacy support, Blanca’s children and nearly 100 others received free books, personalized educational activities, online read-alouds, cloth face masks, hand sanitizer, and school supplies—and parents got frequent, in-language personal encouragement from staff. For Blanca, this was a crucial lifeline during an extremely stressful time.

“I have been undergoing cancer treatment, and it has made me feel like, ‘wow, every moment counts’,” Blanca said. “Even just reading a book to them is important. On those tough days of treatment…my kids would be working together, doing an activity, or reading each other a book.”

Making Meaningful Changes

For Blanca, the recast Readers in the Heights-at Home program helped her family bond in new ways. “On Fridays, we used to have movie nights, now we have family book reading. For Marko, I think getting better at reading has helped him with math, and because the books we received have stories about things like sharing and family time, he’s more humble, caring, and considerate. It has really encouraged us to keep reading.”

These are tough times for every family, but youth in neighborhoods like City Heights are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s upheaval. Schools, organizations, and community groups working with these children can make several changes in order to truly set them up for success. These are:

  1. Support entire families, not just the children you serve. Give parents the tools they need to bring joy to learning.
  2. Ask families what they need and want right now. Then, look beyond your immediate mission to see how you can meet those needs.
  3. Know that you can’t do it alone. Get creative with partnerships. Think public-private, library-food bank, school-nonprofit, and beyond.

During this pandemic and in the years to come, it is necessary to think outside of our usual operations to meet the specific needs of vulnerable families. Our team at United Way has been doing this work since the onset of the pandemic, guiding our partners through the process of reimagining our work within the community to address the most pressing and emerging needs.

In addition to Readers in the Heights, our Every Student, Every Family initiative has been working to align community and school partners, resources, and expertise in the regions of City Heights, Lemon Grove, and Escondido. Through these partnerships, we have begun to identify and address the significant challenges affecting family stability, student engagement, and ultimately learning during this time.

While this year has challenged everyone, it has reinforced what United Way has known for 100 years: creative collaboration is key to transformative change.

Ian N.D. Gordon is senior vice president and chief impact officer of United Way of San Diego County.