Today we’re shining a spotlight on Everybody WINS! DC to congratulate them on their 2013 award from the Washington Post Charities! Mary Salander is co-founder and Executive Director of Everybody WINS! DC, a Catalogue charity since 2006. Now celebrating its 19th year, EW!DC serves nearly 5,000 children through what has become the largest mentoring and literacy program for disadvantaged youth in the Washington Metro area. EW!DC launched in the spring of 1995 with Senators and their staffers as the first mentors and reading partners. Mary Salander joined us to talk about what’s next this year.
1. What motivated you to begin this organization? What need does it fulfill and how are you working towards meeting it?
I was actually working in brain research when I was asked by then-Senator Jeffords, chair of the HELP committee, to help bring this model for literacy and mentoring to Washington. My interest in service work coupled with the scale of the problem — the rate of functionally illiterate high school graduates, to the lack of resources, including books, in low-income homes — led me to dive right in. I had a mentor in 4th grade that made a huge difference in my life and my love of learning, and this was an opportunity to share that opportunity with so many more kids.
Many of the challenges we identified 19 years ago are still challenges today. Twenty percent of adults in the District have few literacy skills, and less than half of the public high school students scored proficient in reading. There’s an enormous gap seen right from the start: middle income students in the United States typically enter first grade with 1,000 – 1,700 hours of one-on-one reading, low-income students go in with just 25. And we’ve done our children a great disservice by teaching to the standardized tests rather than inspiring them to want to learn or to read for pleasure.
Everybody WINS! brings a caring mentor into a child’s life who can introduce them to the joy of reading, as well as inspire them to want to learn. Most of the kids we serve don’t have someone in their lives who can spend time reading with them, so our mentors help fill that gap while sharing their own stories with the students. An encouraging mentor can be so powerful: I was fortunate to mentor a little girl from first through eighth grade. She came in with very few language skills, struggled with challenges at home, but we got to know each other, read together and found ways to make learning enjoyable. By the end of 8th grade, she won the Principal’s Award and even addressed her class at graduation. I heard from her just last month when she called me to tell me she’s off to college in the fall! She has a new opportunity to break the cycle and that’s what we want for every child.
2. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?
We started EW!DC with our Power Lunch program, where adults from federal agencies to law firms read with a child over lunch. We grew from 100 kids in the spring of 1995, to nearly 5,000 today, thanks to the support of the members of Congress, corporate partners and individual volunteers.
Since then, we’ve started the Readers are Leaders program, where 4th and 5th graders are matched with K-3rd graders are reading partners. They read together, but we also run a set of leadership trainings for our student mentors where they learn about being leaders at school and in the community, through service, a leadership summit and other workshops. We’ve also started Storytime, where we bring enrichment programs to schools and get a book into the hand of every child at the end.
3. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces and how are you dealing with it?
The challenge of how to close the literacy gap is always foremost in our minds. Our one-on-one approach is proven to be effective and we take pride in how far we’ve come, but we’d love to scale this up to provide this service for any child in the metro region who could benefit from it.
4. What advice do you have for other people in your position?
Treat your staff royally –find ways to foster their development, build their skills and get to know them. Everyone at a small organization is vital and you’ll get rewarded the more you invest in them. Also, choose your board carefully and spend a lot of your time cultivating excellent relationships with each person. They will add tremendous value to the organization. It is critical to have a high performing board working with you.
And tenacity! Change is often slow, so stay positive knowing that the work you’re doing matters and find your reward in every day you wake up and work for the happiness and welfare of others. As long as I know I’m making a difference, having fun and still have a kick in my step, I’ll keep going because there’s no better reward for me.
5. What’s next/coming up for you?
This fall, we’re excited to have all our programs up and running early, beginning in mid September which will give us more time with the kids. We’re growing our monthly book distributions, to expand the number of books we put into kids hands each year, and will be doing a lot to gear up for National Mentoring Month in January.
6. Congratulations on receiving an award from the Washington Post Charities! What does this award mean to you?
We’re thrilled to have this support — this award allows us to sustain and grow our Power Lunch program at Ross Elementary School, which will support 100 volunteer readers this year. We’ll also be able to continue our special events for the students, including our end of year celebration for all our students, volunteers and mentors.