Washtenaw Promise collaborates on new Ypsi reading program, buys campground for educational uses

Ypsi-based nonprofit Washtenaw Promise is collaborating on a new one-on-one reading program in Ypsi and has purchased a campground just north of Chelsea for teacher training, children's nature events, and more.
Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Washtenaw Promise is expanding through new initiatives, including collaborating on a one-on-one reading program in Ypsi and purchasing a campground just north of Chelsea for teacher training, children's nature events, and more.

Tim Wilson and Bob Ufer founded Washtenaw Promise in 2018 with a focus on providing tools and resources to those who work in early childhood development. They've been focusing much of their effort on children who live in the east side of Washtenaw County.

"Two years of COVID kept us back, but we're jumping back in with a vengeance," Wilson says.

Pooling resources

Washtenaw Promise recently partnered with Ann Arbor-based Children's Literacy Network (CLN) for a one-on-one reading program called Read with Kids at Ford, Beatty, and Perry Early Learning Centers in Ypsilanti.

The partnership came out of an informal literacy coalition started by interested parties across the county in 2021. One of the coalition's founders, Kathy Wyatt, says there was a similar coalition many years ago that dissolved after it lost its funding.

Wyatt began speaking with Amy Goodman, the former executive director of Washtenaw Literacy, and they decided not to wait for funding or even a finalized vision for the coalition before starting monthly meetings back up. Current participants include Washtenaw Promise, CLN, Washtenaw Literacy, The Family Learning Institute, Our Community Reads, the Ypsilanti District Library, Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative, Books for Kids, and Educate Youth.
Kathy Wyatt.
Wyatt says those participants talked about how they could "elevate the importance of literacy in Washtenaw County," Wyatt says. Ann Arbor is often cited in lists of the most-educated communities in the entire country, and yet children on the east side of the county are struggling with poor standardized test scores in reading, she says.

"You'd think that in a county where we have Ann Arbor and the [University of Michigan], there would be a strategic, intentional plan around literacy, and there hasn't been," she says. She says early childhood educators are also concerned about learning loss that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During those literacy coalition meetings, CLN Executive Director Betsy Durant saw that Washtenaw Promise staff were already working at Beatty Early Learning Center, delivering a program similar to one CLN had been hoping to start at Perry Early Learning Center.

"I thought it would make a lot of sense to approach Tim [Wilson], so we did, and here we are. It's a great partnership," Durant says. CLN is developing the curriculum for the Read with Kids program, and Washtenaw Promise will coordinate volunteers.
Washtenaw Promise co-founder Tim Wilson.
"The literacy coalition is bringing to light the literacy crisis happening in the community right now, and programs like this are a reflection of organizations coming together to make a greater impact," says CLN Development and Program Manager Derra Clark.

The program will start at Beatty and Ford, with hopes of expanding into Perry by January 2023.

"So many kids in unfortunate circumstances don't have opportunities for one-on-one reading, and that's one of our primary focuses with Washtenaw Promise," Ufer says.

Durant says reading together is an important literacy activity, especially in an area like Ypsilanti where almost 80% of second graders in CLN's Book Pals program are reading below grade level.
CLN Executive Director Betsy Durant.
"It's not just the child hearing someone read them a story, but it's about the discussion that happens afterward," she says. "When preschoolers are simply holding a book, smelling it, turning the pages, and telling an adult what they see on those pages, everything interconnects. It all works together to excite and motivate the children, and give them a positive experience and outlook on literacy at a very young age."

Ufer notes that Washtenaw Promise has had great success recruiting college students from local schools including the University of Michigan, Concordia College, and Eastern Michigan University for Washtenaw Promise's reading programs at Beatty. Washtenaw Promise staff expect to recruit from that pool for the new Read with Kids program.

Washtenaw Promise has been leveraging other resources for local children besides the new collaboration with CLN. For example, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District used to be the local sponsor for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a national program that provides free books to kids up to age 5. However, the program eventually became too expensive for WISD, so Washtenaw Promise took over as the local sponsor.

"There are 850 families with children under 5 receiving a book every month from Dolly Parton through us," Wilson says.

Creating the Bruin Lake Education Center

Washtenaw Promise also hopes to serve the community by providing teacher training, business retreats, and nature education for kids at a recently-acquired 117-acre property in Gregory, just north of Chelsea. Ufer and Wilson are currently calling the property the Bruin Lake Education Center, but Wilson says they are open to other creative ideas. 

Ufer says he spent many childhood vacations at a family cottage on Bruin Lake, right next to the former Camp Munhacke Boy Scout camp. 
Washtenaw Promise co-founder Bob Ufer.
"I ran through the camp as a little kid and have been jogging through there my entire life," Ufer says. "And then, incredibly, it became available to purchase." 

A $100,000 grant from Huntington Bank will allow Washtenaw Promise to upgrade the property, hire part-time summer staff, and start offering programming as soon as August. Ufer says the property represents a "phenomenally exciting" opportunity.
The amphitheater at Bruin Lake Education Center.
"The first thing we're going to do this summer is have a teacher retreat out there," he says. "From there, we'll expand to have all kinds of different activities for kids in the Ypsilanti area and surrounding community."

Wilson says he hopes to treat educators like "queens and kings," help them gain skills, and inspire them through the beautiful natural setting.

"We're going to develop more opportunities over time, and next summer, we'll be rolling with lots of programming," Wilson says.

Washtenaw Promise and CLN are seeking volunteers for Read to Kids and other programs. Those interested in volunteering with Washtenaw Promise may email Wilson at twilson@washtenawpromise.org. Anyone interested in volunteering with CLN can email Clark at derra@childrensliteracynetwork.org. Individuals or organizations interested in joining the literacy coalition can reach Wyatt at wyattk@washtenaw.org.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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