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United Way: Strengthening relationships is key to future success

By Bill Hulterstrom - Special to the Daily Herald | Nov 19, 2022

Courtesy United Way

A volunteer reads to children in a classroom.

Every few years, United Way of Utah County leads a community assessment to learn more about how things are going in our community. This assessment helps us identify our community strengths as well as challenges that need additional support to address. This effort, which is undertaken in partnership with exemplary agencies across the county, is crucial to our community’s well-being.

Our most recent assessment was completed in collaboration with Community Action Services and Food Bank, Kids on the Move, Mountainland Association of Governments, Early Learning Essentials, Provo City Housing Authority, The Refuge Utah, Utah Community Credit Union, and Wasatch Behavior Health. The assessment that we released this month has been our most comprehensive effort and provides a broad overview of the state of Utah County in 2021-2022.

As I reviewed the data from this year’s assessment, I was struck by how the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reverberate in our community. While life has returned to a more familiar rhythm for many of us, the impacts of the pandemic continue to affect us in different ways. I noticed three major areas where there’s still work to be done in order for our community to fully recover.

The first of these areas is education for our children and youth. The learning disruptions caused by the pandemic have had a significant impact on our kids’ academic lives. The pandemic caused the drop in early childhood education proficiency levels as well as in upper primary grades and middle school. In 2019, 80% of kindergarten students in one of our school districts were at or above grade level in early literacy skill development by the end of the school year. In 2021, that percentage had dropped to 69.3%.

In order to make sure that our kids have the support they need to learn, we can all commit to doing a little more to prioritize early education — particularly early literacy. By doing simple things, such as taking time to talk to the children in our lives or spending a few minutes reading aloud with them each day, we can demonstrate our commitment to learning. These activities, simple as they may be, provide a strong foundation for our kids’ future success.

Courtesy United Way

The Utah County Community Assessment.

Another area that needs increased attention is the mental well-being and resilience of our youth. The pandemic was difficult for many reasons, one of which was the increased sense of isolation experienced by so many in our community. This isolation, combined with other risk factors, made it very difficult for so many of our youth. Depression, anxiety, and poor emotional and mental health are becoming more prevalent among our youth. In 2021, 30.6% of adolescents responding to the Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey reported they had felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities. This is up from 26.4% in 2019.

While it may seem daunting to try to address such a multifaceted challenge, the good news is that there are also simple things that we can all do to support each other’s resilience. Taking time for real connection and creating places of physical and emotional safety for our youth are simple acts that have immense benefits for our youth.

Of course, connection isn’t just beneficial for youth. Some of the most concerning data from the assessment showed that our sense of connection to our neighbors is decreasing. As part of the SHARP survey, 30% of all students indicate low neighborhood attachment compared to 26.9 in 2019. Of the adults who participated in our survey, only 22.3% say that most or many of the people they can count on in their lives live in their own neighborhood, and only one in five felt they knew their neighbors well.

By taking the time to get to know each other and really connect with our neighbors, we will be able to strengthen our community networks and increase the quality of life for all of us. Strong communities are built on the foundation of strong relationships. By strengthening our relationships today, we can lay the foundation for vibrant communities for years to come.

As our community prepares for unprecedented growth in the next few decades, it is imperative that we take time today to teach our children, support our youth, and strengthen our neighborhoods. Together, we can prepare for a bright future for generations to come.

Courtesy United Way

Reading with children helps improve their literacy skills.

To learn more about the community assessment and how you can support the future success of Utah County, please visit http://unitedwayuc.org.

Spending time with children helps build their resiliency skills.

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