October 24, 2017
By BILL LOWERY, UNITED WAY OF SUMMIT COUNTY BOARD MEMBER; REALTOR, STOUFFER REALTY INC.
In March of this year, I had the privilege of participating in one of two annual United Way of Summit County Read to Me Days, which recruit volunteers to read books to children in Akron and Barberton elementary schools.
A few days earlier, the shop clerk at a local bookstore assured me that the books I had bought for the event would be familiar to any kid. But as I read to the children in that classroom – making voices and laughing with them – I realized that, for many of those kids, that just wasn’t the case. For many of them, getting to read the newest, most popular children’s books was a luxury they weren’t used to.
It was a very striking reminder of the reality faced by many children in our community – and particularly in the City of Akron, where 43% of children live in poverty. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of low-income families do not have age-appropriate children’s books in their homes, but for those of us who don’t live that day-to-day reality, it’s a statistic that can seem remote. That is, until a real-life experience opens our eyes.
I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica for two years, and I’ve been a volunteer leader of United Way of Summit County ever since I returned to Akron in 2008. I’m no stranger to volunteer experiences and their power to open people’s eyes to the needs of their communities.
That’s why I am incredibly proud of the efforts United Way has undertaken to expand its volunteer offerings, implementing a year-round calendar of engagement events, which give corporate groups and individual volunteers new opportunities to work within in their communities.
In its nearly 100-year history, United Way of Summit County has distinguished itself by providing an accessible way for thousands of everyday people to contribute to the improvement of education, income and health in Summit County. Yet philanthropy can mean different things to different people, so as we look to the future – to expanding United Way’s impact – we must also work to provide a home for those who want to go beyond payroll deductions and campaign contributions and work hands-on in their communities.
It’s not just individuals who demand these opportunities. Businesses are discovering the value of civic engagement to today’s workforce. Workers who participate in volunteer activities practice valuable skills and demonstrate improved job performance. Their companies report greater employee engagement, recruitment and retention. As more millennials advance in their careers, the value of employee community engagement campaigns is likely to grow.
Of course, interests vary, and fortunately, United Way offers a diverse menu of volunteer opportunities – from mentoring students in Akron Public Schools with the i.C.A.R.E. Program to events like the Smart Start Community Baby Shower. I participated as a volunteer in United Way’s Smart Start Baby Shower, as well as the Stuff the Bus school supply drive. In June, I took part in the KaBOOM! Playground Build in Akron’s Suddieth Park, where more than 200 volunteers worked for six hours under the summer sun to build a brand new playground.
As a Realtor, I recognize the professional advantages of investing in my community, but every volunteer experience I’ve taken part in has been incredibly rewarding on a personal level as well, since it has brought me closer to the spirit and the people that make our community an amazing place to live in.
For United Way, the benefit of all this is obvious – community engagement feeds community impact. Summit County is full of caring, passionate and driven people.
Ensuring that they have the opportunity to channel their passion into action is a surefire way to get the needle moving on the issues that matter most to greater Akron’s future. And that pays off in a big way – whether you’re an individual volunteer looking to make a difference in your community, a business owner investing in the workforce of tomorrow or a child in a public school classroom discovering a love of books for the very first time.
United Way of Summit County hosts a variety of engagement events throughout the year, uniting volunteers to make a difference for our neighbors. Projects can accept corporate groups and individuals and offer teambuilding and networking opportunities. For a list of current and upcoming volunteer opportunities, visit uwsummit.org/volunteer.