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United Way launches Caring Assignment

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Participants in The QC Caring Assignment hold their $100 bills during the United Way Community Campaign Kickoff on Wednesday at Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf.

RaMaya Johnson knew she was in for a surprise. But that's all the email said.

Johnson was one of 50 who gathered on the stage Wednesday at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf. During the United Way Quad Cities annual campaign kick-off, CEO Rene Gellerman announced the newest initiative, the Caring Assignment. 

Each member of the 50-person group was awarded a red envelope with $100 inside. Their mission is to spend the money on others, try to multiply it, invest in something or someone they are passionate about and report back to the United Way in 120 days with their results.

Gellerman said she has embarked on the Caring Assignment before, 25 years prior. When the team was brainstorming on how to "disrupt expectations" and inspire the community, the idea came to mind.

"We thought this was a great way to engage our community and young people, but also inspire kindness," she said.

The chosen 50 are high school and college students, young professionals and those in apprenticeship programs. All were nominated by a teacher, professor or staff member they work closely with.

Johnson, a junior at Augustana College in Rock Island, said she was honored to be nominated by her school. The public health major is on her way to a career devoted to serving the public. With her $100, she plans to invest in the education of young people in the region.

"My mind initially went to students, families, those communities that are not represented and how I can bring resources to them," she said.

During the event, Dr. LaDrina Wilson, CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the United Way Community Campaign, highlighted the educational disparities in the Quad-Cities. Wilson said an assessment conducted in February proved only 11% of Black students in the Quad-Cities are reading proficiently.

To fight the problem, United Way launched Read United QC. At the end of the program, 92% of participating students had improved reading skills.  With there being 38,000 children younger than age 11 in the region, Wilson said its imperative investments are made to the local community in order for change to occur.

"What I hope to see happen is people see the stats and are not just jarred by them, but moved to do something," she said. "If you can work with youth to create a sense of responsibility around generosity, you can transform their character and you can transform our community."

Gellerman reiterated that statement, saying her hope for this group is they learn to get involved with the community, and ultimately, choose to stay part of it.

"I hope they understand the importance of philanthropy, feel closer to our community and learn leadership skills," she said.

Ty Lewis is just the kind of participant Gellerman is hoping to see. Lewis graduated from St. Ambrose in May and sits on the board of directors for the United Way. Through his volunteer position, he knew about the caring assignment, but that also gave him a unique ability: to be able to help select participants.

Lewis said it was an "amazing" experience to be able to lift up his peers and help give them the leadership opportunities he has had.

"To see what it can be is exciting," he said.

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