From Caring to Volunteering: Young Readers Need Your Help

It’s a statistic that is hard to imagine – 62 percent of children entering school in Leon County are not “Kindergarten Ready.” And kids that start behind cannot catch up without extra help.

That’s where we are asking you to step in. One hour of your time each week spent helping a child in pre-K to third grade learn to read can not only put that young boy or girl on equal footing with classmates but it also helps ensure future academic and career success. It is also guaranteed to be an experience you will treasure.

We know. We’ve seen firsthand the pride of an emerging reader as he proudly traces his finger under the words on the page of his favorite book, announcing that he doesn’t need any help on a previously difficult word. Or the joy of a little girl getting to choose a book to take home as her very own for the first time. And beyond reading, we’ve been honored to be a pal that a child trusts enough to share their dreams and their worries.

This year, the United Way of the Big Bend celebrated its tenth anniversary of ReadingPals. This early learning initiative trains and supports volunteer mentors to help young children who are learning to read. We’ve been in as many as 18 Leon County schools including Title I Schools like Sabal Palm, Pineview, Riley, and Sealey, and during the pandemic, we adjusted to online mentoring and now offer in-person and online options to our volunteers.

By the time school starts in August, our goal is to have 150 adult mentors to pair with children who want and deserve a little extra attention and help to get the right start they need to succeed.

What’s more, we’ve thought through all the what-ifs.” What if I miss a week due to illness or travel?” Other mentors quickly step in and help when a mentor must be out. “What if I’m not a teacher?” We train all mentors to use research-based lesson guides and literacy activities created by teachers and reading specialists – we make it as easy as possible. “What if I don’t want to travel far?” We have schools across the county and can offer online mentoring as well. “What if I can’t volunteer to mentor but still want to help?” You can donate to the UWBB’s Reading Pals program. It costs $165 per student per year for books, supplies, and resources. You can donate here today.

We also know it works. For the past decade, 80 to 90 percent of our Reading Pals students made improvements in reading scores on standardized assessments. Last year, 80 percent of our students improved at least one level in their reading program in just ten weeks. We compare our kids to students to others at the same level who are not in our program and consistently see higher gains with kids who have mentors. Reading experts acknowledge that Reading Pals, coupled with strong instruction by the teachers in the classroom, have a direct impact with improvements in reading grade levels.  The impact of Reading Pals mentors who provide a consistent connection throughout the school year is instrumental in improved social and emotional skills that impact not only reading grade levels but overall academic performance. Studies also show that children with committed mentors are more confident and have fewer behavioral problems.

The smiles and hugs from these little people can brighten the day of anyone. That alone is enough for us to volunteer. It is just icing on the cake to know that the early learning experiences you provide can help them excel in the classroom and in life.

Nearly every day, we encounter friends, family, and co-workers concerned about how to make a real difference in our nation, our state, and our community. Through the United Way’s ReadingPals, you can do just that with only an hour of your time each week. To volunteer, call Rhonda Cooper, the United Way of the Big Bend VP of Community Impact, at 850-487-8091 or email her at

We can’t imagine anything more rewarding than investing in a young child’s life and helping them discover the life-long joy of reading. Please join us.

Erik Davis, Chairman United Way of the Big Bend Board of Directors

Sally Bradshaw, Member of the United way of the Big Bend Executive Committee and Board of Directors, Founder & Owner of Midtown Reader in Tallahassee

Eric Davis                                                Sally Bradshaw



Did you know that volunteering provides health benefits like reducing stress, providing a sense of purpose, and nurturing new & existing relationships? Last Friday, it was our pleasure to help our funded program partner, Second Harvest of the Big Bend, in packing backpacks for their Backpack Program which provides food to children to take home on the weekends throughout the school year.  Members of our Board of Directors and Staff were happy to support Second Harvest and the important work that they do.  Happily, it also provided a mental health boost for Team United Way to be able to contribute our big smiles, positive energy, and helpful hands.


BOARD MEMBER SPOTLIGHT –      Sally Bradshaw, Secretary

Sally Bradshaw is currently serving on our United Way of the Big Bend Board of Directors.  During her tenure on the Board, she has held leadership roles as Chair of Community Impact and now as Secretary while also serving on the Women United Leadership Council.  When you talk with Sally, she is quick to share her personal experience with our United Way of the Big Bend ReadingPals’ program.

Sally explained to us why supporting ReadingPals is so important to her.

“United Way’s Reading Pals program has given me the opportunity to directly engage with young students at one of the most important times in their learning journey. Nothing impacts a child more than learning to read. And nothing can change a community more than kids who can read.  Being directly engaged with the same student for the entire year creates a personal mentoring relationship that ensures the best learning environment for that child.”

Sally has been a ReadingPals mentor for several years, and even with her very busy schedule as business owner and Board member, she enjoys volunteering and actively helping the ReadingPals program and the students year after year.  In addition to ReadingPals, Sally and her team at Midtown Reader participate annually in our Read UNITED week held every year in late February.

We caught up with Sally earlier in the year, and she answered a few questions for us:

Q:  What does your involvement with United Way of the Big Bend mean to you?

A:  I’m privileged to be a supporter of the United Way of the Big Bend.  United Way is a major force for good, making a difference in our community and impacting lives locally.

Q:  What do you think the value of United Way is in our community?

A:  United Way’s targeted focus on challenges like safety net, early learning, and housing mean donations are directly impacting our community’s needs in real time.  And I know the United Way has been nimble enough to quickly move to address unanticipated needs as a result of hurricanes or the pandemic.

Q:  Why are you involved with the United Way?

A:  The United Way team ensures that our contributions go towards agencies that they know are moving the needle – agencies that directly impact homelessness, poverty, reading, skills development and health and mental health issues.  And their focus on assisting the ALICE population – our working poor – is of particular interest to me.  These are families doing everything they can to make ends meet – and United Way is all in to help them move out of poverty and into economic security.

Q:  If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know? 

A:  How soon will I have grandchildren???  Will there ever be a pill that allows me to eat sweets without gaining weight?!

Q:  Is there something you have always wanted to learn?

A:  I wish I could draw.  I have no artistic talent whatsoever, beyond stick people.  I’m pretty good at those.

Q:  Favorite song?

A:  Anything by Tom Petty!

Thank you for your time and service to United Way of the Big Bend!


Celebrating the educators, mentors, and volunteers who participate in United Way of the Big Bend’s education initiatives:  ReadingPals, MathPals, Read UNITED, and 21st Century After-School programs, participants and supporters gathered on June 2nd to celebrate the outcomes that United Way of the Big Bend’s education programs are having on our youngest students in the Big Bend.

The goal of United Way of the Big Bend (UWBB) is to support the success of families, individuals, and a thriving community by consistently seeking to improve lives in measurable ways and making our community a better place to live, work, and play.  Through their ReadingPals and MathPals programs, they are helping elementary aged students in the Big Bend know that there is someone who cares about them and their success.  For ten years, ReadingPals’ mentors have been playing an important role in providing emotional support while helping students improve their skills.  One hundred and four students and one hundred volunteers participated in the ReadingPals and MathPals programs offered at Title I Schools during this recent school year and contributed to improved literacy star assessments given throughout the school year seeing an eighty-four percent improvement in young participants’ scores.

“We appreciate all of the volunteers and mentors who share their time and talents with our students and are so appreciative of our tremendous partnership with the United Way of the Big Bend that spans over a decade.  During that time, the Reading Pals program has proven to increase reading skills levels and literacy assessment scores.  We love hearing from students how much they appreciate their ReadingPals’ mentors and how much the relationships developed over the course of the school year mean to them,” said Rocky Hanna, Superintendent of Leon County Schools.

In addition to ReadingPals and MathPals, Read UNITED, an annual week-long reading event now in its twelfth year, provides an opportunity for volunteers to share their joy of reading in classrooms throughout the region encouraging a love of reading in students and providing a resource to jump start young readers on a lifelong journey of reading.


Goal of 150 mentors matched with 150 students

Donate $165 per student for books, supplies, and resources

ReadingPals is an early literacy initiative that trains and supports volunteer mentors for students from preK – 3 grade who may need extra help.  According to the Florida Department of Education, only 62% of children starting school in Leon County were “Kindergarten Ready”. In Spring of 2021, almost half of Leon County’s third graders were not reading at grade level proficiency.  Research shows that early intervention and individualized attention gives students the best chance at future success and our ReadingPals program offers those two things.

Our mentors are trained to use research-based lesson guides and literacy activities created by teachers and reading specialists in one-to-one mentoring sessions with their pals. Our virtual program uses an online professional reading software program based on research and best practices. Our program tracks our pals’ reading gains on an annual basis, comparing their scores with a control group of non-participating students. For the past decade, 80-90% of ReadingPals’ participating students have made

improvements in reading scores as measured on standardized assessments. Last year, in our virtual program, 80% of students in ReadingPals made at least one level gain in their reading program in only 10 weeks.  The data shows that ReadingPals helps improve reading skills.

However, and just as importantly, we also know that children in our ReadingPals program gain more than just reading skills.  Studies show that children with committed mentors are more confident and have fewer behavioral problems.  ReadingPals gives community volunteers an opportunity to have meaningful relationships with young children, which can help them be more successful in school and in life.  Children who are successful in school, stay in school, improving graduation rates in the community and that benefits us all in so many ways.  To be successful, children need good early learning experiences and nurturing adults in their lives.  Our ReadingPals provide just that.  Investing in our ReadingPals program is an investment in our community’s children and their future success.


Join us on Wednesday, September 14th at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center for our ANNUAL COMMUNITY MEETING.  Program begins as 11:30 AM.  We will recognize our outstanding supporters and explore the exciting things ahead for UWBB.  Click here to register:


Our United Way of the Big Bend team had the pleasure of attending our state of Florida United Way conference with our statewide cohort on June 14th through the 16th in Orlando.

Our United Way of the Big Bend organizes and manages the conference for United Way of Florida.  This year’s theme was “Onward & Upward” and examples of the program include presentations on Community Impact:  Combatting a Crisis – A Panel on Housing Affordability; Marketing – Connecting Head & Heart; Operations – Work Culture; and Resource Development – Demystifying Diversity.  The program also included a panel discussion with four United Way CEO’s including our own President & CEO, Berneice Cox.  The discussion was centered around breaking down silos and creating synergy to build a cohesive team able to address critical issues in our community.  Throughout the two-day conference, there were twelve breakout sessions including sessions with keynote speakers and opportunities for networking and meeting our counterparts across the state.  This year’s conference was the most well-attended to date, and we were happy to have this professional development opportunity and to meet our fellows from around Florida.

Pictured (l-r):  Kelly Jansen, President & CEO, UW Emerald Coast; Amber Miller, President & CEO, UW of North Central Florida; Berneice Cox, President & CEO, United Way of the Big Bend; Jessica Muroff, CEO, UW Suncoast.

Pictured (l-r):  UWBB Teammates – Sara Dow, UWBB Impact Strategies Manager; Rhonda Cooper, VP of Community Impact; Beth Phillips, Resource Development Manager; Tod Thomas, Creative Director/Director of Interactive Communications; Allah Whittaker, Operations Manager.


We are ecstatic to welcome two new members of our team:  Dr. Jenny Blalock, Vice President of Resource Development and Allah Whittaker, Finance Operations Manager.  Welcome to the team!

Dr. Jenny Blalock

With over 20 years of experience in education, research, policy analysis, and nonprofit program development, Dr. Jenny Blalock is a dedicated wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and community leader. She has served in the public sector as a middle school teacher, at the Florida Department of Education, and as a Gubernatorial Fellow in the Florida Governor’s Office of Policy and Budget. She also worked for Florida State University as a research assistant and course mentor while completing her Ph.D. in education policy and evaluation. Jenny also holds master’s degrees in education policy and English education and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Florida.

In the nonprofit sector, Jenny has worked with Literacy Volunteers of Leon County, Leadership Florida, and Grace Mission. She has volunteered with numerous community organizations and initiatives and served as a board member for The Sharing Tree, Grace Mission, and Dress for Success. Through her experience working with nonprofit organizations, Jenny has gained skills in event planning, fundraising, community outreach, and advocacy.

Jenny grew up in Longwood, Florida and has lived in Tallahassee since 2005 with her husband Adam and their children.

Allah Whittaker

Allah was born and raised in Tampa, FL.  He is a recent graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University with a Bachelor of Science in health care management. In August, he will begin the master’s program at FAMU working towards a degree in Health administration.  While at FAMU, he was a part of the Student Healthcare Management Association and he loves watching football.

Annual Community Meeting

September 14th, 2022


Register Here Today

Women Leadership Breakfast November 16, 2022

Dunlap Champions Club at FSU (formerly known as the University Center Club). Doors open at 8:00 am.

25th Annual Golf Classic

Friday, April 28th, 2023

Southwood Golf Club