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Help Kids Read: Do It for Them, for You and for America

Where to find out more about literacy volunteering opportunities


In my 30 years at Hewlett Packard, I was proud of what we did to assist the good causes in our communities, from donating printers to encouraging employees to take time off for volunteering. Yet when I began my retirement, I noticed an enormous missed opportunity for corporate retirees — the chance to connect them with the needs for their talents at nonprofits and provide retirees with a sense of purpose.

Why Reading Matters

This observation is why I became a champion of the encore movement, which places corporate retirees (or soon-to-be-retirees) in nonprofits and other social-sector organizations and joined the Encore.org board. My Encore.org experience provided me with the context to understand the importance of Why Reading Matters and What to Do About It, a 2016 report from Business Roundtable (a consortium of CEOs of America’s leading companies).

The issues raised in the report affect far more than “elite” leaders. I believe everyone with a stake in the future — which basically means everyone — has a reason to care about childhood literacy, because basic literacy unlocks knowledge. I also believe strongly that Americans in their 50s and 60s can help kids, themselves and the nation by spending time teaching young children to read.

Why Reading Will Be the Economy’s Magic Bullet

According to the report, reading will be the magic bullet for the U.S. economy in the coming decades. Reading proficiently by Grade 3 is broadly recognized as a predictor of academic success: Children who aren’t competent readers are four times as likely to drop out of high school as their literate peers. Yet only one in three students overall are “proficient” readers. The grim statistics worsen for students of color and those in economically-challenged circumstances: Only one in five black, Hispanic and lower-income students demonstrate reading proficiency by the 4th Grade.

Children who aren’t competent readers are four times as likely to drop out of high school as their literate peers. Yet only one in three are “proficient” readers.

Why Reading Matters sets the issue in concrete, explicit relief: Reading, the report says, is “one of the most commonly and intensively used skills among all types of jobs across the entire U.S. economy,” essential to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) mastery and to “softer skills” like critical analysis and effective communication. But nearly 98 percent of CEOs report their companies experience “skills gaps” that undermine success. Economists predict a shortfall of 5 million workers with sufficient post-secondary education and training by 2020.

Volunteering Opportunities to Teach Reading

The Business Roundtable Action Plan offers recommendations for state policy, but I believe that individuals can make a powerful difference to promote reading. Most school districts have volunteer opportunities for literacy tutors; national and regional organizations like AARP Experience Corps, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Jumpstart have years of experience matching tutors with young students — with outstanding results for all.

It’s my strong belief that we need to mobilize and empower employees nearing retirement (and those already retired) to offer their time, talent and experience to youth-serving organizations in their communities. In fact, these people — who likely have more free time than those in the pressure-cooker early and middle years of a career — could be the ones volunteering, writing Op-Eds for local newspapers, joining advisory groups and nonprofit boards, and even working full- or part-time for nonprofits. If you’re looking for a way to make in impact on youth literacy in your community, here are a few ideas:

Seek out volunteer opportunities through your school district, local youth organizations or community-based organizations that work with volunteer tutors, even in the summer months.

  • Boys and Girls Clubs of America summer literacy-building project — the Summer Brain Gain — pairs kids with adult tutors in more than 1,500 U.S. clubs. You can register to participate, learn more and choose program activities at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America website.
  • AARP’s Experience Corps has a two-decade history of matching struggling young readers with experienced adults, with programs involving 2,000 tutors and 30,000 children in 22 U.S. cities. For information, visit AARP Experience Corps.
  • Oasis Lifelong Adventure,  a national nonprofit that promotes healthy aging via lifelong learning, has a wide range of tutoring opportunities.

These national projects offer opportunities in all 50 states, but many regional and local organizations serve kids in need across the U.S. To find out more about close-to-home literacy projects, visit Encore.org’s Generation to Generation campaign, delivering the talents and experience of the 50+ population to youth-serving organizations all over the country. The Gen2Gen website is a kind of digital umbrella, with information on programs in various regions and a state-by-state Opportunity Finder.

Finally, you can also pursue your own encore career, through a one-year Encore Fellowship, matching your skills with youth-serving nonprofits.

Bravo to the CEOs at Business Roundtable for crafting a vision that’s good for companies and for our young people. And bravo bravissimo to the legions of volunteers — ordinary people who want to make a difference — who show up in schoolrooms, community centers and libraries every day to support early childhood literacy.

Whether you’re sitting in a C-suite, a cubicle or on a park bench, the development of our children and youth is crucial to a society that stretches from generation to generation and beyond. Let’s recognize the strengths of members of the generation now poised to think about their next chapter, even as they contribute to another generation’s brighter future.

Everyone’s got something to give: What will you do?

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By Webb McKinney
Webb McKinney is a management consultant who serves on the boards of four nonprofits: Encore.org, Resource Area for teaching, the American Leadership Forum - Silicon Valley and ALearn. He also serves on the board of SMART Modular Technologies. Prior to retiring from Hewlett Packard after 34 years in 2003, he was the executive vice president leading HP's merger integration and global citizenship efforts as well as HP's organizational effectiveness and governance initiatives.

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