After a tough year, our region’s children experience a summer of learning and joy.

By Julie DeSeyn, Chief Program and Policy Officer, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania

Janelle is starting middle school with the confidence that comes from successfully having programmed a robot. After a year of Zoom kindergarten, Emily is embarking on first grade with critical skills in cooperation, sharing and socialization, in addition to mastery of her numbers and colors. And rising high school junior Malik already has a first draft of his college entrance essay along with a short list of schools he’d like to attend to pursue an engineering degree.

In early 2021, we had no idea what ‘back to school’ would look like this year. But after a year of hybrid, virtual and socially distanced learning, we knew that children would be ready for – and need – safe, engaging, in-person summer programming to prepare for whatever form school would take this fall. Oh, and they’d need some fun, hands-on activities to begin to heal from the stress of the pandemic and rekindle their love of learning.

With more than 100 partners, funders, agencies and proposal reviewers, the Welcome Back! initiative was an unprecedented collaborative effort for our five-county region. Which is why we are so grateful to have convened a broad range of caring community partners, including McElhattan Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, The Grable Foundation, Hillman Family Foundations, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Ciervo Foundation, The Buhl Foundation and Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS also engaged additional funders in the effort, including the Benedum Foundation, Eden Hall Foundation, Jefferson Regional Foundation and Richard King Mellon Foundation to together plan for ways to get children connected with safe, affordable, high-quality summer programming.

As a result, $2,071,512 was awarded to 66 organizations across Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland, Fayette and Armstrong counties to provide summer programming for school-age youth. More than 8,000 children would be engaged in in-person programs, allowing their parents to work, and establishing a bit of normalcy during a very abnormal year.

The power of the “Welcome Back!” Initiative is bigger than the numbers indicate, however. It’s the commitment of partners, agencies and funders to the children of our region. It’s the peace of mind for working parents knowing their children were safe, engaged and fed during their workday. It’s the ability of summer programs to staff up, pivot and provide enriching activities for children thirsting for them. And it’s also about the 8,000 children’s individual stories – of growth, fun and connection with each other.

After a year of being on “mute” during virtual classroom sessions, young children could explore their curiosity on a range of topics – from hands-on STEM activities to petting farm animals.

Rather than streaming from one class to another, high schoolers could challenge themselves in new ways, whether as first-time kayakers, choreographers or camp counselors.

Maybe most importantly, instead of struggling with technology, logins and the frustration that can come from solo learning, children were together this summer, bouncing back with true resilience and, well, just being kids.

In my 14 years at United Way, I have seen the impact of collaboration time and time again. We routinely convene and mobilize diverse partners across our region. It’s true: alone we can do so much, but together, we can do so much more. And maybe that’s the true learning from the summer of 2021. Togetherness – being united – makes us all so much better.

As seven-year-old Kayla said during one busy afternoon in August, “the best part of the summer is my friends. Last year, I really missed my friends.”