United Way Distributes Backpacks and School Supplies to 600 School Children

White Plains, NY (September 2019) – Approximately 600 students in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Ossining, Elmsford, Peekskill, and Putnam County received backpacks and other supplies in time for school thanks to the United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

United Way of Westchester and Putnam (UWWP) collected the supplies during a “Back to School Drive,” as part of its Campaign for Grade Level Reading.

“This campaign is essential in setting students up for success,” said United Way of Westchester and Putnam President and CEO Alana Sweeny. “It also relieves a significant financial burden from working families who are already struggling to make ends meet.”

Most backpacks contained binders, notebooks, pens, and other school supplies to prepare students for the school year.  All items, worth approximately $11,750, were donated.

“We are incredibly grateful to our many donors, including Raymour and Flanigan, Costco, and numerous individual donors. “Sweeny added.  “We could not do this without their generosity.”

UWWP collected the donations and distributed them at various events in the weeks before school opened.

“School supplies start adding up, especially when you have more than one child,” said Dionne of Yonkers, who is the mother of 5. “Getting the backpacks and other stuff through United Way let the kids start school off right and leaves us better able to pay our regular bills.

UWWP is a member of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (GLR Campaign), a collaborative nationwide effort to improve early learning and early school success for children from low-income families.

The program seeks to promote literacy and ensure that children are on target with reading skills by third grade, a crucial milestone year. Sixty percent of low-income children do not have even one children’s book in the home and only 38 percent of children in Westchester and Putnam are reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

Stressed senior woman at home

2-1-1 specialist helps deter a caller from suicide

Kelly is a divorced Westchester mother with children away at college and no family nearby to turn to. Kelly had been suffering from depression for a number of years. Having had a very difficult day at work, and not being able to stop crying, she decided to call 2-1-1. During the course of the conversation, Kelly revealed she was thinking of suicide. The specialist first made sure Kelly didn’t have a plan or the means to take her life and then connected her to a mental health hotline where she could further discuss her suicidal thoughts. The 2-1-1 specialist stayed on the line with Kelly while the hotline operator persuaded her to seek immediate treatment. Kelly then agreed to have emergency services come to her home and take her to the hospital. The 2-1-1 specialist followed-up with Kelly the next day and learned that Kelly had met with a psychiatrist at the hospital who helped de-escalate her feelings of suicide and together they came up with a plan for her that included counseling.

Mary, a 2-1-1 call specialist, said that when the call center receives calls from people contemplating suicide, specialists first assess whether they are in immediate jeopardy, and act accordingly, either connecting them to mental health services or having a co-worker call 9-1-1 while they remain on the line.

“We ask a series of questions to determine if the person is at a high level of distress,” she said. “Are these just thoughts or are they going to act immediately?

What surprises Mary most, she says, is the number of older adults living on their own. “Many people are lonely and have no support system,’’ she said. “These are very vulnerable people. Sometimes they just need that friendly voice to talk to or someone to talk them through handling an issue.’’

Holly McKeown

2-1-1 Helpline assists caller with financial and medical solutions

When Holly McKeown called United Way’s 2-1-1 referral line this fall she was at her wit’s end. Six months earlier she had agreed to take in a friend of a friend who was having financial and medical difficulties for two weeks until she could get back on her feet. Two weeks turned into a month, then two months turned into four months. Instead of things improving they were getting worse.

“It was having a tremendous impact on my family,’’ she said. “I really didn’t know what to do.”

That’s when Holly learned about the United Way’s 2-1-1 referral line from a friend. The free, confidential, multilingual referral line helps an average of 6,000 callers a month, many in the same kind of desperation as Holly. The 2-1-1 team connects them to resources, including food assistance, elder care, housing, free legal assistance, mental health services including suicide prevention, help with utilities and medical bills, tax preparation and more. The call center is staffed by a team of certified call specialists who are trained to listen to and solve problems.

“I got a wonderful woman named Marjorie who listened to my story and was so compassionate,’’ said Holly. “I had no idea how to navigate the system, I was really in panic mode. She went the extra mile. She didn’t just rush me off the phone. She really listened and tried to help me. Now I have a plan. It made all the difference. This is a very, very important resource. More people should know about it. Now that I know, I tell everyone.’’

Lini Jacob, Senior Vice President of 2-1-1 Hudson Valley, said that Holly’s experience is not uncommon. “Many people are surprised to learn about the call line and all the services that are available, including 24-7 coverage during any kind of public emergency.’’

Launched in 2006, the United Way’s 2-1-1 has grown exponentially in 12 years. The call center, located in the United Way of Westchester and Putnam’s offices on Central Avenue in White Plains, is a hive of activity most days. It receives calls from four regions: Long Island, Hudson Valley, Adirondack, and Northeast, covering thousands of square miles of territory.

Call specialists have an expansive database at their fingertips that they can use to search out resources by zip code. They also have access to a service that can translate more than 200 languages from Swahili to Mandarin. Several call specialists are also fluent in Spanish, which is the most common second language spoken by callers.

“Our call specialists are expertly trained to handle inquiries that often start with one issue, but may lead to a myriad of other needs the caller wasn’t even thinking of when they dialed,’’ said Jacob. “By asking the right questions, we may find out that the caller is not only in need of food but may have housing, mental health or other issues. While there may be great resources out there, many people who need them, don’t know how to access them, and that’s where we come in.”

Marjorie, who has worked as a 2-1-1 call specialist for nine years, said that she loves her job, not only because of the variety of calls makes it interesting, but because of the satisfaction, she feels in helping people.

When a call comes in, she said, it is immediately identified by zip code so she can quickly search the database for nearby services. Some callers are simply looking for a resource, others require an advocate who will speak for them, help them navigate the system or fill out paperwork. In some cases, call specialists need to jump into action to address emergencies.

“Calls run the gamut. One can be a simple request looking for a food pantry and the next call can be someone in crisis with suicidal thoughts,’’ said Marjorie.

Individualized Education Helps Kids Succeed

John and Sophia started kindergarten this year at Carl L. Dixon Primary School in Elmsford. John has a difficult time concentrating and didn’t know the alphabet. Sophia is shy but is completing all the work that is put in front of her. In the past, teachers would have given these students similar grade-level work, even in a small group setting. Whether struggling or strong in skills, every student deserves to be able to progress as far as possible.

Since the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, the Peekskill and Elmsford School Districts have partnered with United Way of Westchester and Putnam and Learning Ovations to use the A2i Professional Support System, which identifies each student’s needs and provides strategies on how to address them in their kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. A2i, which stands for assessment to instruction, is a research-validated system, created by Learning Ovations, that is drastically improving the third-grade literacy rate of students across the country.

There are 763 students in 32 classrooms using the A2i tool between the two school districts in Westchester County. A2i

is not a program or a curriculum. It is a professional support system for teachers. It is used to assess students and, through specific algorithms, determines the exact number of minutes and type of instruction that allows a child to progress with the most reading growth in a year.

“Through the use of A2i, our teachers get information on the children as well as strategies on how to use that information to help the students succeed,” said Dr. David Mauricio, Peekskill Schools Superintendent.

Dr. Marc Baiocco, Elmsford Schools Superintendent, concurred. “With A2i, we are not just speaking about individual student outcomes. We are actually addressing individual student needs.”

Through research funded by The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Health, seven randomized studies have concluded that through the use of A2i, 94% of all students are able to read at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

This is compared to the 38% of children nationwide entering fourth grade who are reading below grade level.

The results from the districts’ winter midyear assessment are incredible. The students from both districts are in-line with the research results and are reading at or above grade level. The students are excelling through A2i, and the remedial needs of the students have been drastically reduced.

Dr. Baiocco said that A2i has helped address the needs of students like John. “We have students coming in and out of our Response Through Intervention program rather than having to stay there,” he said. “Once we address their needs, they go back to that individualized learning style and flourish. This is because we have homed in on those needs and addressed them, so that the student can continue progressing.”

A2i helps more than just those who need remedial help. “We are finding students that are already reading a grade level above and, in some cases, even reading two grades above grade level,” said Dr. Baiocco.

As a kindergartner, Sofia is reading at a second-grade level. Literacy work from the elementary school, where second grade is taught, needed to be sent to Dixon Primary School to meet her needs.

“A2i allows us to address the students who truly need intervention and additional support. It also assists us in homing in on the skills necessary for our middle group of students and build in this whole enrichment philosophy,” said Dr. Biaocco.

“We are not just speaking about individual student outcomes; we are actually addressing individual student needs.”

Both the Peekskill and Elmsford School Districts are thankful for the support and opportunity they have been given through United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

“United Way is an untapped resource for many school districts, but also a great partner with a common vision,” Superintendent Mauricio said.

Dr. Biaocco added, “United Way has been incredibly supportive in everything we do. More importantly is the opportunities that the United Way of Westchester and Putnam has provided us. It lives up to the spirit of what United Way is all about.”

The next assessment will be done in May, and we cannot wait to share the results with you.