BRADENTON -- When she was a little girl, Bronwyn Beightol remembers her father, Ken, reading books out loud.
"I remember the sound of his voice," said Beightol, now senior vice president for United Way of Manatee County. "I remember him licking his fingers to get the page right. I remember I was joyous if he didn't stop at one but read two chapters."
Her father's voice made Beightol want to read.
"I loved Pippi Longstocking," Beightol said, recalling the main character in a series of children's books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. "Pippi was willing to do anything. For me, there was also Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and The Boxcar Children."
Beightol's passion for reading came through Thursday at Renaissance on 9th
as she announced the United Way of Manatee County's involvement this year in The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
It was all part of United Way's official 2015-16 Campaign Kickoff.
The United Way set its goal to raise $2.5 million in 2015-16 for projects. Just as important, however, is getting "intellectual capital" to solve the problem of children not reading, said Philip Brown, president of the United Way of Manatee County.
"This is really an opportunity for our community to come together," Brown said.
Taking time with children was also the focus of the keynote speech by United Way of Manatee board member Neil Phillips of Visible Men Academy.
"We have to invest in our children," Phillips said. "By we, I mean all of us."
If people take the time to nurture a child, he said, the child will get the willingness and hunger to learn.
The transition from third to fourth grade is a crucial time, Beightol noted.
"When they move from third to fourth grade, they move from learning to read to reading to learn," Beightol said.
Beightol gave sobering statistics to the crowd of 125 at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast.
"Forty percent of children in Manatee and Sarasota counties from kindergarten to third grade are not reading on grade level," Beightol said. "That's nearly 3,000 children."
The problem is partly because of children missing school, Beightol added.
Quoting statistics from the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Beightol said 2.800 students from kindergarten through third grade from 32 schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties are chronically absent, which is defined by missing 10 percent of school days,or 18 days a year.
A child might be absent because he or she has no clean clothes, Beightol said, or needs a lice treatment the parent can't afford because the shampoo is $18 a bottle. In brainstorming sessions over the last few weeks, one suggestion was putting a laundromat near where the bulk of impoverished children live.
"This is where we need partnerships," Beightol said. "This needs to be a long-term project. No, I correct myself. This is a movement, not a project."
Those who wish to help students read on grade level are urged to attend a meeting of The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church Bradenton, 1306 Manatee Ave. W.
RSVP to email@example.com for reservations.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.