United Way’s Vello program is revolutionizing volunteering and improving student literacy

Phoenix, AZ | Submitted by Jessie Hinton

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What started as a pilot program in Maricopa County in 2015 has grown to a national literacy volunteer movement. Vello is all virtual to target volunteers who might not otherwise have time to volunteer during the day. Directed at Valley of the Sun United Way’s (VSUW) goal to improve student literacy, Vello engages passionate volunteers as tutors. Efforts focus on grade level reading skills (fluency, accuracy, prosody, vocabulary, comprehension, etc.) for youth in first through third grades.

Through the innovative online tutoring program, students and volunteer tutors connect and read books from a virtual library. Creating strong readers in elementary school puts students on the path to succeed in high school and beyond. And because it’s all virtual, volunteers can engage with students from the convenience of their own office, home or jobsite. Sometimes all it takes is one caring adult to make a real difference in the lives of the children, and that can be a Vello volunteer.

Teachers can identify – and schedule – students to be part of a Vello session at a dedicated workspace in the classroom that is provided by the program. VSUW developed an administrative portal, which allows teachers and volunteer to get setup, and students and tutors to easily connect for sessions. All Vello classrooms have access to Learrning A-Z’s blended learning platform with over 50,000 digital literacy resources.

Many students even have the opportunity to meet their virtual tutors in person. VSUW has organized special events so that volunteers can meet students and read a book together to experience what happens on the other side of the computer screen.

Volunteers undergo an online training on everything from using the Vello portal to reading strategies that will help their students. Background checks and online monitoring ensure that students are tutored in a safe environment.

The popularity of the approach has created a waiting list of Title I schools that want to participate. While some companies have sponsored classrooms, additional funding to administer the program depends on individual donations or grant availability.

Now in 14 communities in 9 states, Vello is estimated to reach 3,000 students this year alone. The first-of-it’s-kind program is helping to address the Arizona Education Progress Meter goal to improve third grade reading proficiency to 72 percent from 44 percent. So far, 100 percent of teachers agree that Vello has helped to grow reading skills. And volunteers love the flexibility and impact. Here’s what some volunteers had to say:

  • “I really appreciate the opportunity to help strengthen a child’s reading skills. It’s the one skill that will help them succeed more than any other skill. I wouldn’t be able to fit it into my schedule if I had to drive to a location. I love the ease of sharing time with them electronically through Vello.”
  • “I think Vello is a fantastic way for working professionals to work volunteerism into their daily activities. I loved reading with the kids and would recommend this to friends and colleagues. Thank you for the opportunity!”

Vello is also creating connections. Four out of five students have shared that participating in Vello makes them more excited about school. An even higher number said that having Vello has increased their interest in learning.

The program has been so successful with reading comprehension that similar initiatives are under development to aid in math skills and college readiness. To learn more about how to volunteer, or sponsor a classroom, visit Vello.org.

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