Nine-year-old Isabella Helzer coats her wooden crate with a custom blend of purple and blue — two of her favorite colors. She steps back to examine her work before dipping her brush and filling in gaps to ensure a smooth finish.
This isn’t just any crate — it’s a literacy-building resource. When completed, bookshare boxes like Isabella’s, each containing 100 books, were distributed to 14 different United Way for Southeastern Michigan partner agencies.
“I hope when the kids see it, they love it,” Isabella said.
Isabella is one of more than 100 volunteers who joined United Way at Focus: HOPE to celebrate National Volunteer Week. The goal of this community project was to build childhood literacy and encourage daily reading habits that can contribute to lifelong success.
“The reality is 40 percent of children in Greater Detroit start kindergarten unprepared to learn, so the focus on literacy is critical,” said Kristen Cibulskis, volunteer engagement manager at United Way. “We know that learning starts the first day of a child’s life — not the first day of school.”
The sea of United Way volunteers clad in bright blue T-shirts helped with a variety of tasks. One group built 950 reading comprehension kits complete with a book, various worksheets, a bookmark, an encouragement card and a calendar that outlines one activity parents can do with their child each day.
Kyleen Black attended the event with her 7-year-old son Rondell and 5-year-old daughter Rocquel. The trio put their arts and crafts skills to work, cutting and coloring bookmarks.
“It’s cool because my daughter can work on her fine motor skills with cutting and be helping another child at the same time,” Kyleen said.
Kyleen makes a habit of volunteering with her children to show them how fortunate they are and encourage a spirit of giving.
“I want them to be well-rounded individuals and volunteering helps with that,” she said.
At the encouragement card creation table, volunteers shared laughs and message ideas as they decorated their cards with colorful designs.
“Our volunteers here represent a cross-section of the community — from families to corporate partners to nonprofit partners, everyone is here to help,” Kristen said. “We have people here from 4-years old to grandparents, so we’re really excited about that.”
Warm weather allowed other volunteers to help outdoors — cleaning up debris and raking leaves in Focus: HOPE’s pocket park. The park, which is open to the community, offers a quiet place to have a cup of tea, read a book or just enjoy the sunshine.
Sharon Edgar, who retired in January after working for 42 years as a mail carrier, was excited for an outdoor volunteer opportunity.
“I sat on my butt for three months and then I came across this volunteer event and felt like it was God’s way of telling me to go out and do something to give back,” Sharon said.
Khristi Miller, manager of volunteers and community outreach at Focus: HOPE, shared her gratitude for Sharon and all the other volunteers.
“It really is a tremendous help to have all the United Way volunteers here today,” she said. “We couldn’t be a help (to the community) without help.”
As Karen Miller sorted suits and dresses in the clothes closet, she reflected on her past. She was a single mom of two relying on food and assistance programs from Focus: HOPE. More than 30 years later, she’s attending her first volunteer event and is happy to be able to pay it forward.
“I’m so grateful for what they did for me and my kids at a time when I was really struggling,” Karen said. “It’s nice to be able to give something back.”