Literacy and diversity: How United Way’s Big Book Drop helps kids build success

By Laura N.K. Miller, Esq., Sr. Associate Counsel, VP Government Programs & Provider Contracting, UPMC Health Plan, Inc.

There’s something magical about storytime. As a mom, reading is a great way to connect with my daughters and spend time together. It transports them to new worlds and encourages them to think creatively and use their imaginations. There’s also real science that tells us reading is critical to the development of a healthy child.

And reading can do even more, depending on the book in hand.

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Big Book Drop has distributed 40,000 books to kids in our community each year since 2019. This year, in keeping with United Way’s commitment to helping kids build success in school and life, each book was hand-selected to promote literacy while focusing on social diversity, including various ethnicities, classes, genders, physical abilities/qualities, races and work statuses.

Especially in the past two years, many families have been staying safe at home and taking limited trips to museums, libraries, parks and other public spaces where they have the opportunity to meet people different from themselves and observe different ways of life. Those opportunities give parents the valuable chance to have important conversations about diversity and acceptance.

Though we’re returning to more in-person events, books remain a reason to have a conversation or question why something is the way it is. It gives children a reference to say, “Oh, we read about that!” or “I’ve met someone like that before.” For kids, many things are new to them, so any exposure helps them better understand the world around them.

Oh, and that research I mentioned earlier? According to a study done by Jessica Logan at The Ohio State University, kids who read only one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by age five than those who don’t regularly read books with a parent or caregiver. Can you imagine the advantage that gives them in school?

Speaking of in-person events, as a returning Big Book Drop volunteer, I have to say the event is pretty fun for us, too! We’re sorting and packing books, but it’s also a rare chance to connect with other caring adults outside of a digital screen – a welcome change!

I’ve had a long relationship with United Way, spanning nearly all of my 16 years with UPMC Health Plan. I’ve served as a co-chair of the Bridges Society, participated in an RFP committee, volunteered at various events, chair the Good Neighbor Center and am honored to serve on the Board. Throughout the years, United Way’s commitment to helping our community thrive has only grown.

So, changemaker, will you join us to help children succeed in school and life? Learn more, make a donation and keep an eye out for upcoming volunteer events at