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?

The Youth United Impact Awards celebrate students making outstanding contributions to their communities through volunteerism. These students have given time, talent and energy to make a significant positive impact on children and families in Atlanta. Youth United applauds these efforts and invites YOU to nominate a deserving student!

Nominations are now open. If you know of a student who fits the criteria, please take the time to nominate them! Nominees may be students between the ages of 14 and 18, who reside in or attend school in metro Atlanta. The deadline to submit a nomination is Friday, May 15.

Nominate a student by completing this short form.

Winners will receive a $100 cash award, and recognition via Youth United social media.

For more information about the Youth United Impact Awards, please contact Claire Arnold by email at youthunited@unitedwayatlanta.org.

#WhyWednesday: Askya Alexander

For Askya Alexander, representation matters. Today, hear why Askya joined Youth United and uses her platform to pave a way for others in the Greater Atlanta to have the opportunities that she does.

Youth United (YU) is your source for high school student-centered volunteer opportunities. Led by a student board, YU offers unique and impactful service projects that improve the lives of children and families throughout Greater Atlanta. We will be introducing our newest class of Youth United Board Members at our upcoming Youth United Kick-off on Sept. 21, 2019. Learn more about the YU Kickoff event here.

#WhyWednesday: Andrew Maiorino

Today, hear from Cambridge High School student and Youth United board member Andrew Maiorino! What’s Andrew’s “why”? He says, “My passion is literacy, because literacy opens doors.”

Hear more about why Andrew chooses to give back to his community as a Youth United board member:

United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Youth United is a place for the next generation of community leaders to share ideas, take action and make an impact. Open to high school students, Youth United is student-led and focused on service. Click here to learn more about joining Youth United or submit a board application!

#WhyWednesday: Khushi Magiawala

Khushi Magiawala is passionate about improving education and mental health in Greater Atlanta. Today, hear this Alpharetta High School senior & Youth United board member share why she lives united!

What are the issues you care about? Whether it’s education, health, financial stability, or homelessness, United Way of Greater Atlanta has a way to plug in and make a difference. Click here to learn more about what we do to improve community well-being across Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties.

#WhyWednesday: Robyn Roberts

“All of us use the village to raise our children.”

Hear Robyn Roberts, champion for children and our community, share why she’s working to improve child well-being as a member of Tocqueville Women United.

Tocqueville Women United is made up of committed business and civic leaders who take action to improve the lives of children in Greater Atlanta. They join together with our Cole Women United to serve our community and further the child well-being movement in our region. To learn more about joining Tocqueville Women United, click here.

#WhyWednesday: Sanaa Edole

Sanaa Edole wants to change the world, starting with her community. Today, hear why she serves Greater Atlanta as a board member with Youth United!

United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Youth United group gives high school students the opportunity to build leadership skills and take action to change their community. Youth United board members deep dive into community issues, determining how they can best make an impact. Click here to learn more about YU board membership!

#WhyWednesday: JT Williams

What’s your “why” – the reason you give, advocate and volunteer in Greater Atlanta? Everyone has a story to share. Today, Youth United board member JT Williams shows us that your why doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to create an equal playing field for every member of your community.

Ready to dig in and do your part to help Greater Atlanta? Whether you want to volunteer, learn about our giving opportunities, join a group or step up as a nonprofit board leader, United Way of Greater Atlanta can help you fulfill your philanthropic purpose.

#WhyWednesday: David Hsi

David Hsi, Johns Creek High School junior and Youth United board member, is taking action for the greater good. Today, hear why he’s taking his community involvement to the next level with Youth United.

Interested in learning more about Youth United? A student-led service group, Youth United develops the next generation of community champions by creating new opportunities for high school students to step up as volunteers and leaders. If you know a community-minded high schooler looking to deepen their leadership skills, stay tuned — recruitment for next year’s Youth United board begins soon!

#WhyWednesday: Ellie Munson

Ellie Munson knows that she won the birth lottery — and she’s taking a leadership role in her community to help other children have the same opportunities she benefitted from and to improve equity in education.

What’s the birth lottery? Let this Youth United of Greater Atlanta board member break it down for you.

Whether you’re passionate about improving education, health, financial stability, access to housing or filling basic needs for our community, United Way of Greater Atlanta has a way for you to get involved! Ready to get started? Start by learning more about our Child Well-Being Movement, and sign up to volunteer!