Note: Photos used in this story were taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic
Marie Wood grew up volunteering with her family at local community food banks, for activities with her church youth group and for other nonprofits spread across the Greater Atlanta area.
Volunteering was something that excited her, that she was proud to be able to do — it showed her a different side of the city where she grew up.
“We went out into other communities, and that’s when you start to realize not everyone in [Greater] Atlanta is as privileged as others,” Wood says.
The high school senior jumped at the opportunity to join United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Youth United affinity group, which is a group for high school students with a passion for serving communities that creates unique volunteer opportunities for them to make an impact.
“I thought it would be really interesting and rewarding to reach out to our community and do this,” Wood, who served as a board member for Youth United, says.
Wood built “Little Free Libraries” with Youth United and attended and lead a number of other service projects at local elementary schools. She liked the connection she was able to make with a diverse group of students. But most of that took place in late 2019, she says. As we now know, the next few months would totally change what outreach at United Way looked like for the foreseeable future.
About two weeks into March 2020, the United States began shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and schools in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The infectious disease, COVID-19, has now infected millions, killed hundreds of thousands and has contributed to mass unemployment across Greater Atlanta and the United States.
Even though there are now multiple COVID-19 vaccines being distributed across Georgia, the pandemic has already greatly hampered the flow of volunteer opportunities that’s become synonymous with United Way.
Volunteering in Greater Atlanta is important work, though—work that is never over. Through the week of April 18-24, we honor volunteers around the world for National Volunteer Week—people like Wood who adapted in the current climate to make sure a need was met.
Classes at Wood’s school and schools across Atlanta where other Youth United board members attended went virtual for much of 2020. Wood says Youth United started immediately trying to find new ways to volunteer while adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines.
They decided on an “Online Storytime” project where members of Youth United would record videos reading some of their favorite books. Since it began in March 2020, Online Storytime has become a favorite volunteer project, and has garnered support from many corporations in Atlanta.
“We liked it because we could serve kids, be a resource to families and parents and bring light to a time when it was all pretty scary,” Wood says. “It was an easy way to brighten people’s day.”
It was an easy way to encourage students to read along or focus on their reading comprehension skills, and volunteers could provide educational resources for parents who were balancing careers while taking care of their children at home. We know that if children aren’t strong readers, their opportunities are limited. We must give children the tools they need from the start to give them a chance to become strong learners.
Virtual reading projects were an important way for our volunteers to connect with these children. It helped further United Way’s work to improve the well-being of children in Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties—it helped us do more, together, in what was an uncertain time in our country.
“I first got connected with United Way because we align with their commitment to literacy and the [child well-being] work United Way has done the last couple of years,” Mimosa Elementary School Principal Ariane Holcombe says. “But, during COVID, we’ve had some virtual ‘read alouds.’ Prior to this pandemic, United Way has helped us with some really incredible programs where they bring in different partners for half a day to provide literacy-based experiences for the students.”
Holcombe’s school in Roswell has about 700 students, and she says the pandemic has created a number of challenges. For example, there’s a distance learning component now and teachers are dividing time with in-person students and those at home.
“As proficient as we’re becoming as teachers remotely, it’s not the same as being face-to-face,” Holcombe says. “We’re a Title I school with a large amount of second-language students, and a lot of what they acquire through language and literacy they are now missing out on.”
This is where volunteers have been able to step in and bridge a gap, Holcombe says.
“They’ve got some really great community role models,” Holcombe says. “That’s key. In a community where many of my families don’t have transportation, the community base is school, the grocery store and home. These volunteers come in—United Way seems to bring in the most diverse individuals— and they are seeing some amazing role models who are so encouraging and supportive.
“It’s nice to know there’s a small group in Roswell out there that are cheering for you even if they haven’t met you yet.”
Every child deserves the same support and opportunities, and every life we change will go on to change the lives of countless others.
Wood is weeks away from graduating now, and she’s planning to make a final decision on college soon.
“I think a lot of my work at Youth United impacted the way I look at my major,” she says. “In college, I’m looking for ways to interact with my community more and more. I’m looking for service opportunities because I believe that with personal progress comes progress as a whole.”
To continue that progress in our community, we must Unite for More. Can children, families and Greater Atlanta communities count on you?