Bright Spots and Silver Linings

Grade-Level Reading Week 2022

by Angie Matthiessen, Executive Director – United Way of Charlotte County

Know your audience.

If I were standing in front of a group of preschool students and informed them that I wanted to speak about the elephant in the room, there would surely be giggles. Many little eyes would dart from side to side, wondering how they had missed such a hefty creature in their midst. Undoubtedly, one astute observer would raise his hand and make it abundantly clear that there was, in fact, no elephant in sight.

If my audience, however, were perhaps a little older and less imaginative, my announcement of an elephant in the room might be received with nods of agreement or looks of discomfort, but probably not any giggles.

For early childhood educators, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the nation to identify and speak about the elephant in the classroom – that the greatest obstacle to learning is poverty.

A child growing up in poverty likely struggles regularly with lack:  lack of food, lack of digital access (internet access, individual devices, technical assistance), lack of relational supports (tutors, mentors, coaches), lack of out-of-school learning opportunities, lack of books in the home and often a lack of parental engagement, as many low-income caregivers are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

The pandemic exacerbated these barriers, causing what data is sure to show has been incredible learning loss for our most vulnerable. But during the 2022 Grade-Level Reading Week, July 18-22, we want to stare that elephant in the face and highlight the bright spots and silver linings that COVID-19 brought about.

Prior to 2020, teachers and administrators were already overwhelmed. Many students were struggling. And programs and services aimed at making an impact were not fully getting the job done. It would be naïve to think that all we need to do is get back to where we were. There is a need to improve.

The silver lining of the pandemic was that we are finally having open dialogue about the issues that are holding our students back. And the bright spots along the way are the collaboration and innovation that used to be seen as extras but are now seen as foundational.

The Suncoast region has truly risen to the occasion with a vision for collaboration and innovation that looks to the lack that many of our children are living in. Together, we aim to build a strong foundation for our children and families in order to ensure early childhood educational success. This past week leaders behind the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, as one of 20 finalists for the All-America City Awards, presented to a jury of national civic experts on the work being done in our region to promote early school success and equitable learning recovery. The Suncoast Region was named one of the 2022 All-America City winners by National Civic League (this includes Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties).

The collaboration and innovation piece – using housing as a platform.

If you are looking for another elephant, look no further than affordable housing. The silver lining here is that communities can look to public housing authorities and affordable housing organizations to bring together public, corporate and community-level stakeholders to support these children and their families using wraparound services and supports and a two-generation approach, so we can truly make progress toward breaking the cycle of poverty.

The Suncoast region has four public housing authorities, Arcadia Housing Authority, Manatee Housing Authority, Punta Gorda Housing Authority, and Sarasota Housing Authority. We have begun visioning with these organizations on how we can collaboratively support our children and families. As innovations unfold in Charlotte County, I look forward to sharing with you what we are doing and where we are going.

As my audience today, as you read about the elephant in the room, what will be your response? If you are nodding in agreement that Charlotte County children deserve support in achieving educational success and the opportunity to rise above multi-generational poverty, please join us as we mobilize the power of our community to break the cycle of poverty. You can learn about ways to invest your time, talent and treasure for the benefit of our youngest residents at

For more information about United Way of Charlotte County’s mission:  Mobilizing the power of our community to break the cycle of poverty, please contact Angie Matthiessen, Executive Director. She can be reached at