Vello volunteer with two students

Untied Way Vello program having big impact at Mountain View Elementary


Virtual volunteers are making a difference. That was visible as second graders at Mountain View Elementary eagerly awaited the chance to finally meet the person they been reading to for months.

These local virtual volunteers are part of Vello, an outreach program from United Way of Washington County that allows students to read online to volunteers through a computer. The students have been spending at least 30 minutes a week reading to their virtual buddies, who can hear the students read and see the book they are reading on their screen.

Once the students are done, the volunteers – who go through a background check before they are assigned to a student - ask them questions about the book. But on this day, students were finally getting the chance to meet their reading buddy face-to-face.

“Every one of my students that has a reading tutor on Vello has been able to progress in their reading level,” Mountain View second grade teacher Marla Hyatt said before the excited students were allowed to meet their tutor.

“In second grade they are really beginning to read for knowledge, instead of learning how to read,” Hyatt continued. “So it’s very good that they have the time to read and they’re corrected. They’re able to slow down and really think and discuss what they’re reading with someone else.”

Mountain View principal Dr. Melissa Stukes welcomed the program into her school with open arms; with the hope that the more hands on deck - even virtual - would help her students continue to improve their literacy skills.

“Usually when I go in a classroom and a student is using Vello, they don’t even realize I am standing behind them,” Stukes said. “I think that is great for them to get that one-on-one reading time and it really helps our students expand their literacy skills.”

Kristan Ginnings, President and CEO of United Way of Washington County, said that the local chapter wanted to address the most critical issues in the community, not duplicate any on-going efforts. Third grade literacy is one of those key concerns.

“After-school programs are doing great stuff, our teachers are doing great stuff, but there are only so many resources in the schools,” Ginnings said. “So we felt like in order to make the biggest impact, we had to get to the students during school and provide additional resources.”

Ginnings came across Vello at a United Way conference and instantly knew it was something that United Way of Washington County needed to implement.

 “It was like a dream come true, it’s the perfect match,” said Ginnings, who noted a United Way in Arizona was gracious enough to share the program. “Because you can connect volunteers virtually, so it provides flexible volunteering. You’re not there in person, but it makes an impact. We can see these kids making progress through Vello.”

That flexible volunteering is vital for professionals that have the heart to volunteer but can’t always physically be there. That is why the volunteer program has been appealing to businesses like First Tennessee Bank, Ballad Health, BB&T, Powell Construction and Citi.

First Tennessee Bank Senior Commercial Loan Officer Jennifer Owen said that the flexibility fit her schedule perfectly. She could recall a few instances where she was on a trip and had to carve time in her schedule to listen to one of her students read.

“There have been times when I have just had to pull out my laptop and pull out my cell phone in a parking lot in-between customer calls and get to spend time with Lela or Monique, which are my new friends,” Owen said. “I love spending time with them, learning about the books they are reading, but they also talk to us about what they are experiencing in school and fun things they’re doing for the holidays. It’s just great to build a relationship with these kids.”

Owen said the experience has been phenomenal. Mountain View second grader Lazaro Simon-Whitman said he has also enjoyed the experience.

“Once you get on there and actually read to them and talk, you actually get to meet them,” Simon-Whitman said. “You get to communicate with somebody.”

Those communications are invaluable, according to Mountain View second grade teacher Jessica Johnson.

“If there is a day that for some reason there is no volunteer, they are kind of bummed,” Johnson said through a smile. “It makes my students happy that there is a dependable adult that is ready to listen to them and that there is no pressure.”

The United Way of Washington County raised $25,000 to start the program this year and it costs $3,500 per classroom per year. The United Way is currently seeking sponsors and volunteers to add to the 150 virtual volunteers that they have in 10 classrooms, with five classrooms in Washington County and five in Johnson City.

“We would love to have this in every second grade classroom in Johnson City and Washington County, but it’s going to take a sum of $250,000 to $300,000 to do that,” Ginnings said. “So we are starting small and as we raise more funds and get more sponsors, we will put it in more and more classrooms.”

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