Friday, April 18, 2014

The Term that Makes You Squirm

by Tammy Brown, Community Impact Manager – Strengthening Families
Hearing the term financial literacy can make even the most competent person squirm, yet financial literacy is really quite simple – manage your money wisely.  Earn it, save it, grow it, budget it and share it. However, financial literacy is far more than managing your money from day-to-day or month-to-month, it requires a working knowledge and understanding of how money works (e.g. the benefit of having a checking account as opposed to using predatory lending services like check cashing services or quick loans).
Unfortunately, many people are not financially literate and only know how to manage their income from paycheck to paycheck because they are not taught financial principles in school or in the home. Perhaps this is why in 2004, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 316 to officially recognize April as National Financial Literacy Month.
It has now been 10 years since the resolution was passed, yet this is the first time I have heard of April being National Financial Literacy Month. We must go beyond designating a month to bring awareness to the need for financial literacy in our nation and begin implementing policies to ensure the principles of financial literacy are taught in grades K-12, as well as in post-secondary education.  We must value financial literacy just as much as literacy because being illiterate, in any way, hurts us all.

For tips that will improve your financial literacy, and help you save a pretty penny, visit the Strengthening Families page on our website:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Gift to Families: Peace of Mind

by Kelvin Ceasar, Project Manager - United for Military Families
Give. Advocate. Volunteer. Here in the United Way office, those words are etched in our brains. Today, I want to focus in on the third word in that trifecta – volunteer.  I want to share some recollections from a special volunteer experience I had.  A couple of years ago I spent time during the winter and early spring training as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) volunteer based out of South Sound Outreach Services.  Across the country each year, thousands of people are trained by the IRS in tax preparation.  The training covers tax filing for simple 1040 EZs and goes up to some fairly complex tax situations involving the dredged  “long form”— pretty scary stuff.  But the training is great and you are allowed to progress as far up the mountain as you desire.  I made it about half way.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable and mentally challenging experience.  In particular what made the experience so special for me and what motivates me to encourage you to take on this opportunity as well is the earned income tax credit (EITC among us tax gurus).  No I didn't earn a tax credit for volunteering (I wish!) but I was able to ensure that several single moms and hardworking couples did.

The “working poor” is routinely talked about in the circles I operate in, yet in a lot of instances it can seem like an abstract.  We know the statistics and we know, in the grander scheme, what United Way dollars are invested in but we don’t often get a chance to hear from specific individuals who have been lifted through our support. During my cycle as a VITA volunteer I met many people who were hard workers, yet struggling. They would tell me their stories as I worked through their taxes; stories about working multiple jobs or working extra-long hours at a job but still not being able to quite make ends meet.  It felt really good to spend an hour with a young couple and at the end to be able to tell them that in a few weeks they would have the money they needed to finally get the car fixed. That meant they wouldn't have to take the bus anymore, saving them an extra two hours every day commuting to and from work— two hours that they could now spend with their kids. Another precious memory is of an elderly woman who had recently lost her husband, and for the first time had to prepare a tax return on her own.  To be able to reassure her that I would take care of it and that she would be getting money back to help her get caught up on bills was something I will never forget.

All in all it wasn't a bad way to spend some of those cold, wet winter days we have here. I sincerely encourage you to take a few moments to research the VITA program. It’s a great opportunity, with a fascinating origin, for those looking to give back. Then I want you to seriously consider signing on as VITA volunteer next winter; you won’t regret it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's All About the Kids

by Nalani Linder, Community Impact Manager - Early Childhood Development

You know you work with children when…
…you’re telling children in the grocery store to use their ‘inside voices’.
…you come home with marker, paint and dried glue on your hands or clothes or hair—every day!
…the soundtrack of songs that get stuck in your head are about the alphabet, clean up time or baby beluga whales.
Laughter and knowing nods filled the community center meeting hall last month, as kindergarten teachers, preschool teachers and child care providers came together to talk about what they have in common as teachers and caregivers of young children. Such a scene was repeated a total of five times over the last two months, hosted by United Way of Pierce County, First 5 FUNdamentals, Graduate Tacoma, the Tacoma School District and Child Care Aware of Tacoma-Pierce County. These evening events were called “Building Connections: It’s All About the Kids” and conversations were indeed on the kids—specifically, how the adults could work better together to ensure successful transitions to kindergarten for every child in Tacoma.

Nearly 200 people participated, sharing lighthearted comments about working with children while also having thoughtful conversations about how people were using the state-wide practice guidelines for Early Learning classrooms or the benchmarks for kindergarten readiness.

The events are widely considered a success. One kindergarten teacher commented, “I feel closer to the child care teachers who pick up and drop off. I'll take more time to talk with them.” At the conclusion of the events, several participants asked for further opportunities to connect, and said that they would bring even more colleagues next time.

In a county where more than half of the children entering kindergarten are not yet completely ready for school, opportunities for this kind of professional connection are filling a critical gap. One participant summed it up well, “I have been teaching early childhood for 18 years and I've never seen this many people from different entities come together to bridge this gap.”

While it's just a beginning, it's a bridge we want to continue to build, knowing that ultimately it really is all about the kids.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Hardest Decision I Still Haven't Made

by Kathryn McCarthy, Director of Donor Relations

For me, making a big decision is a process; a painful, tedious, annoying experience for all involved.  For example, before purchasing my dishwasher I spent hours, weeks scouring Consumer Reports, customer reviews, reviewing features and comparing brands and models.  I probed friends, neighbors, and the sales staff at Home Depot for recommendations.  I created a spreadsheet matrix; I shopped multiple stores and watched closely for sales.  Ultimately it took months for me to find a dishwasher, but in the end I was confident with my decision and six years later I still love my dishwasher.

So now imagine my process for deciding where my sweet, precious first born should go to kindergarten.  He will start this fall and at this point I am completely annoyed with myself – and here’s the kicker – I have not even decided!  My husband and I have spent over a year thinking about and researching the best place for our sweet, precious, first born son to attend kindergarten. We’ve narrowed it down to two schools and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

1.   Explore your options and prioritize what matters to you. A great thing about living in Pierce County and Tacoma is the many school options. There are traditional public schools, public Montessori, private Montessori, secular private schools, private Christian and Catholic Schools. While having so many options can be a bit overwhelming, it’s a testament to our community’s acknowledgement that every child and family is different and what works for one does not necessarily work for others.  Look beyond your neighborhood school because the best fit for you and your child might not be the closest school. And if you live in a neighborhood like us, you may live very close to several schools.

Prioritize what's most important to your child and family, taking into consideration academics, special education, sports, arts, and other extracurricular activities but also practicalities like tuition, transportation, and aftercare.  You can find test scores for public schools and detailed information about the programs offered (check out the links at the end of this article.)

2.   Listen up working parents - before and after care varies, a lot.  My husband and I both work full-time so for us before and after care is really, really important. This is where our child will spend 2-3 hours a day. The folks at before and after care are responsible for safely getting him to and from class. And school is not open as much as my office. I don’t get winter break, spring break, or the Friday before a holiday off – so I need a safe, loving and reliable place to take my child. Some care is onsite, and others require busing. Make sure you understand what the before and after care options are and then talk to them.

3.   Visit prospective schools.  To help me make a decision I again created a spreadsheet matrix. It really helped me to compare schools and see the differences.  By doing this I was able to narrow our search down to four schools. And the last couple weeks we’ve visited all four and the corresponding before and after care options.  We chose to bring our son along with us on three of the tours. I wanted him to see the schools and observe his reactions. We met teachers, principals and other parents and asked a lot of questions.

What will the school do to ensure that my child doesn't fall behind? What happens if my child gets behind? Or if my child is gifted, how do you develop those gifts even if the rest of the class doesn't have them? What is your approach to discipline? Can you walk me through a typical day? How many kids are in the class? How often do you assess a child’s progress?

4.   Think long-term.  A sticking point for me personally has been trying to think beyond kindergarten. Right now we are stuck between a great public school in our neighborhood and a private school that’s close but not in our neighborhood. Kindergarten is just one year; I want to set my son up for success through elementary, middle, high school, college and life. And we’re thinking through the goals we have as a family and parents. What if we move to a different neighborhood?  Is private school worth the extra cost? This is a great public elementary, but what will our options be for middle school and high school?

In the end we know our son and our family needs the best. Over the next couple months we’ll make our final decision on kindergarten and this decision will have tremendous impact on my son’s life, so he deserves us taking our time, doing our homework and putting his needs first.

1.   OSPI - State website with test scores and tons of information about schools across Washington.

2.   This is a national website where you can search schools across the US and find test scores.  It also has tips and articles on picking a school.

3.   Schools Districts (find schools individual websites) The following is a list of all sixteen public school districts in Pierce County, Washington:


Friday, March 21, 2014

Summer Babies

by Maureen Faccia, Executive Vice President

I have a summer baby!  She was born 7-27-2007 at 2:07pm, and so far the numerology is disturbingly accurate.  Today she is a very special, vibrant and exciting first grader.  She loves horses, friends, and books.
Two years ago this month, it was time for me to register her for kindergarten and I had so many concerns:  Was she ready?  Could she keep up?  Would her confidence suffer as her peers were able to do all kinds of things before she was able to?
Since I work in this field, I know “ready” for kindergarten is beyond whether or not my child knows how to recite the alphabet or count to 20.  Ready at this age is very much about how well she can focus in the classroom for the 15 minute bursts of instruction and practice.  Summertime babies, those children who will forever be the youngest in the class because they just barely meet the cutoff for school registration, can often start school with a deficit simply because they are 11 months behind their September peers.
Aside from sympathetic friends and school teachers, I found a few excellent resources that I want to share.
o   Call your school! Most school districts offer developmental screenings for kids 5 and under which can help you assess your child’s readiness for school. They can also provide learning standards (click here for an example) for kindergarten so you can assess your child at home.
o   Make sure your child is enrolled in a quality pre-school before Kindergarten.  85% of brain development occurs before the age of 5, so maximizing the exposure your child can have before they enter Kindergarten is crucial.  Ask your preschool teacher if they are specifically working to prepare your child for language, reading, math and other elements your local kindergarten will teach. 
o   Access “Ready for Kindergarten” assessment tools that you can use at home on the web through United Way of Pierce County and other organizations who work in this field.
 How did I finally make the decision to send my summertime baby to Kindergarten?  I was most worried about her focus and ability to follow instructions.  A tool I found helpful was a “focus” game I played with her.   The task was to provide a series of things she needed to do sequentially and assess how many she could complete and how long it took to complete the task.  With a carrot of a play-date at stake, I was shocked to witness the speed with which my daughter was able to cross the room to retrieve a blue ball, return to the sofa and pick up the red socks, pet the dog and go to the door.  It became clearer to me that my daughter was more ready for kindergarten than I realized.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How to know a child is ready for kindergarten

by Nalani Linder and Nola Renz, Community Impact Managers

How to know a child is ready for kindergarten? For many children, one’s fifth birthday is a milestone in that it’s time to leave the familiar scene of home, child care or preschool to enter kindergarten.  With registration opening this month for school districts throughout Pierce County, parents and caregivers of five year olds might wonder not only how to register for kindergarten, but even more: is my child ready?

What does it mean to be ‘ready’? Most school district offices offer ‘checklists’ of basic reading and math skills as well as language and social development skills to help you know if your child is prepared for a successful kindergarten experience.  Here’s a sample:
  1. Counts from 1 to 20.
  2. Prints his or her first name.
  3. Follows simple directions – listens and completes instructions.
  4. Sits still – can sit long enough to listen to a story and/or participate in class activities.
  5. Uses the restroom – knows when they have to go to the bathroom and can do so by themselves.
  6. Recognizes letters – They don’t have to be reading, but letter recognition is important.
  7. Works on fine and gross motor skills – jumping, running, throwing a ball, holding a pencil and cutting with scissors.
  8. Gets along with peers – knows how to share and take turns.
  9. Handles emotions – knows her feelings and has coping skills.
  10. Shows an interest in learning – likes to listen to stories, music, and is stimulated by the information.
For an example of a complete list, see A Family’s Guide to Kindergarten Readiness from Tacoma Public Schools.

How does your child feel about it?  We want every five year old to be excited and eager to start kindergarten, but know that sometimes that’s not the case. The Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) has a wonderful checklist for kindergarten readiness as seen through the eyes of a child.  This ‘child’s checklist’ includes things like ‘I feel comfortable with the school I’ll be attending’ and ‘I feel ready to start kindergarten’.  Consider taking your child to your local school’s playground on a weekend to talk about their own feelings of beginning kindergarten. 
What if my four year old is ready?  Do you have a four year old who’s reading up a storm?  It may seem like she’s ready to make the jump to kindergarten, but think twice before you enroll her. Experts caution in putting your child in too early, as academic readiness doesn’t always mean social/emotional readiness for the long days in the kindergarten classroom. Think too about the long term implication: do you want to commit your child to being the youngest in their classes when he is in middle and high school?  Many kindergarten teachers encourage parents to consider having their little ones in a high quality preschool an extra year, to let them continue to grow and learn so they are ready for kindergarten success in all ways.