Throughout the United Way of Story County (UWSC) LIVE UNITED campaign, this column is highlighting different programs in each of the three community impact areas of education, income and health to give readers an idea of the work being done locally.

A significant amount invested in UWSC’s impact area of education supports social development programs to help give kids the advantages needed for success in school and life. Partners like Boys & Girls Club, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire, Girl Scouts and Youth and Shelter Services host beneficial educational programs with these investments. As part of social development, literacy is becoming an urgent area of focus for these agencies.

Camp Fire, an original UWSC partner, understands the importance of literacy to youth education. Bob Reid, executive director for Camp Fire Heart of Iowa, said recent discussions have centered on what Camp Fire and other youth-serving organizations can do to impact high school graduation rates.

"We teach soft skills, like getting along, and we work to motivate them for success, but there is a disconnect between what we were doing and what we could be doing to directly impact school success for kids," says Reid.

So, Camp Fire started looking at what they could do. Camp Fire and similar programs keep kids for a long period of time – sometimes between eight and 10 hours a day; sometimes more than a few weeks at a time in the summer. Camp Fire has found that summer school isn’t ideal for most families because the partial day structure doesn’t work with many schedules. And, Reid says part of the reason young people don’t go to summer school is because parents want their kids to have the same kind of summer they had.

"By incorporating education, it’s win-win," Reid said. "We began to ask, ‘Why can’t we find a way to make literacy a focus?’ We can integrate it into what we already do and make it fun and camp-like."

Camp Fire researched and found a program in Baltimore to model, and they have found it works. Many youth who attend the community center day camps in Des Moines are on free and reduced lunches. Reid says the youth in that socio-economic group are more likely to fall three months behind their peers.

"With the help of literacy coordinators, we get them to read 40 minutes every day, and we’ve been able to get 80 percent of those to maintain the grade level they were when they started camp," Reid explains. "We’re working to push what we’ve learned out to other camps, including those in Story County."

Donations to United Way of Story County help make educational programs like Camp Fire accessible to more individuals by keeping prices down and subsidizing the cost of camp for those who can’t afford it. Investing in education during the times kids are out of school can have a tremendous impact on their future success.

Reid says "Camp Fire’s focus is to take over when schools take off. When young people are out of school or on break, we provide programming for when parents are at work. We’re really fulfilling a niche that fills the needs of whole family."

(Sara Wilson is marketing director of United Way of Story County, a strategic leader in building countywide partnerships to identify needs and to develop, support and evaluate effective human services, especially in the areas of education, income and health, for our diverse community.)