Everybody Wins! Iowa: Reading Aloud to Children Makes Winners of Both Mentors and Mentees

Everybody Wins! Iowa (EWI) expresses an important belief in the very name of this nonprofit organization: that kids aren’t the only winners when an adult takes the time to mentor them. That’s a unique, and might we say “winning” perspective for any organization to take. Any other organization working on helping children with their reading would say it’s all about the children. We like this novel approach to the business of helping children learn to read, and so we were glad to have an opportunity to help this organization in our modest way, with one of our Kars4Kids small grant awards. We spoke with Everybody Wins! Iowa Marketing and Development Coordinator Jordan Mains to learn more about this work.

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us what the tagline, “When you read with a child, everybody wins!” means to you?

Jordan Mains: When it comes to reading aloud to children, we most often speak about the benefits that are provided to the child. But, there are many benefits for the mentor as well. Students win by enjoying consistent and positive interactions with caring adults, while improving in their literacy skills. Volunteers win by enjoying meaningful and worthwhile experiences and the satisfaction of knowing they are making a positive impact on the future of a young child.

Other “winners” from our program include the schools that we serve and the companies that partner with us to provide our kids with volunteer reading mentors. Schools win by seeing improvement in their students’ literacy skills without assuming any administrative burden or cost. Companies win by offering a simple, efficient way to enhance employee morale and from the positive effects of providing a valuable service to the community.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about your demographic. Who are the children and the volunteers participating in your programs?

Jordan Mains: EWI serves elementary-aged students in kindergarten through 5th grade. We partner with dozens of schools across Central Iowa, serving a total of 36 program sites during our FY20 program year (which includes summer 2019 and the 2019-2020 school year).

Here’s a look at the demographics of the kids we served during our 2020 fiscal year:

Male: 45%

Female: 55%

Ethnicity: Hispanic: 17%, Non-Hispanic: 83%


Black: 21%

Caucasian: 44%

Asian: 5%

Multi-Racial/Other: 29%

American Indian: 1%

In addition:

76% of students we served qualified for free/reduced lunch.

Our mentor demographics look a bit different. In our FY20 program year, 7% of our mentors were age 24 and below, 14% were age 25-34, 11% were age 35-44, 12% were age 45-54, 24% were age 55-64, and 31% were age 65+. Over half of our volunteers are working professionals, about one third are retirees, and 6% are students. Another 9% fall into the “other category” which includes unemployed, stay-at-home parents, etc. About one quarter of our volunteers identify as male, while the other 3/4 identify as female.

Kars4Kids: Who founded Everybody Wins and why?

Jordan Mains: The Everybody Wins! program was founded in New York by Arthur Tannenbaum and his wife Phyllis. They had always read aloud to their children and reading aloud together was an important time for them to come together after a long day. It helped the Tannenbaums to instill a lifelong love of reading in their children. Arthur picked up a copy of the Read-Aloud Handbook, written by Jim Trelease, after reading a book review in the New York Times. Arthur appreciated how important the read-aloud experience was for children, and realized that there were many children who didn’t have that opportunity to read with an adult in their daily lives.

Trelease wrote that reading aloud to children was the single most important factor in improving children’s literacy skills–but what happens to those children who never had that opportunity? Arthur saw a chance to make a difference by visiting a neighborhood school once a week during his lunchtime and reading to a child. He quickly recruited co-workers to join him in his weekly “Power Lunch.” Soon, the volunteers’ impact became obvious. Children in the program were learning to love reading, they were gaining self-confidence, and they were becoming better readers.

This simple program has an enormously powerful impact! Soon Arthur retired from his job and founded Everybody Wins! as a nonprofit in New York. This program quickly spread, and was brought to Iowa in 2002 after Senator Tom Harkin participated in an Everybody Wins! DC program and knew it could benefit children in Iowa. During its first year (2003), Everybody Wins! Iowa served 15 children in three Des Moines schools (Capitol View, Monroe, and Windsor).

Kars4Kids: The Everybody Wins website speaks of students having “consistent and positive interactions with caring adults.” What does “consistent” mean in this context? Do the volunteers commit to a schedule or time period for their work with the children?

Jordan Mains: Great question! In this context, “consistent” means that every week during program time throughout the school year, students have the opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with their mentor while also having the opportunity to work on their literacy skills. We ask each of our volunteers to make a once-per-week commitment to reading with their students throughout the course of the school year. Our hope is that each match will continue to read together each year until the student ages out of the program.

Everybody wins iowa mentor reads to young boy
Everybody Wins! Iowa in-person Power Reading session, before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Kars4Kids: Can you describe your signature program, “Power Read?”

Jordan Mains: During Power Read, students meet with their mentor to read aloud together, talk, and build relationships with one another. Matches meet once a week throughout the school year, and each match is strongly encouraged to continue year after year until the student ages out of the program.

Traditionally, our programs have been held using an in-person format. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our program has moved to an online format for the duration of the 2020-2021 school year. Currently, students and mentors meet remotely each week via Zoom.

Everybody Wins! Iowa Power Reading Zoom session
COVID-19 means Power Reading Sessions must be held via Zoom, instead of in person, in the schools

Students are enrolled by their teachers in Power Read for one (or more) of three reasons:

  1. The student is not proficient in reading
  2. The student is learning English as a second language
  3. The student displays a need for mentoring for any reason

Power Read is structured to provide struggling readers with additional help beyond the traditional academic setting and to provide those same students a chance to gain an equal footing by providing them with one-to-one attention they might not be getting at home or elsewhere. Our mentors are not teachers nor tutors, but rather positive role models that help students to build their confidence and inspire a positive attitude toward reading. And most importantly, our Power Read program is provided to area schools and community partners at absolutely no cost to them so we can bring our program to the students who need it most.

We believe a crucial component of Power Read is encouraging the students we serve to become avid readers outside of the classroom. Statistics show how important it is for children to have their own books at home, and for that reason, our program provides each of our students with four books of their own throughout the school year. Each student also has the opportunity to earn an additional 2 books through our READO activities. Over 3,642 books were provided to students in our program during FY20 (summer 2019 and the 2019-2020 school year).

While it is our goal in the short-term to help our kids be successful in reading, we also seek to help them become passionate lifelong readers, setting them up for a lifetime of success. Our vision is that the children we serve will reach their full potential, graduate high school, and have the opportunity to pursue advanced education. Through their academic success, they will also enjoy other life successes such as increased self-esteem, higher lifetime incomes, and become more fully participating members of society who value literacy and share it with their families.

Kars4Kids: How many schools are on your roster, at present? How many children are participating in your program?

Jordan Mains: Presently, we are serving 32 schools across Central Iowa. Since the start of the school year, our most recent data shows that we have served 535 students. We do add more students to the program throughout the school year as we are able, so we do expect this number to increase by the end of the school year.

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us about your volunteers? How many of them do you have on board? What is the age span of your group of volunteers?

Jordan Mains: Currently, we have 345 mentors that are working with us. Many of our volunteers choose to serve more than one student, which is why the number of volunteers we have is typically less than the number of kids we serve. In our FY20 program year, 7% of our mentors were age 24 and below, 14% were age 25-34, 11% were age 35-44, 12% were age 45-54, 24% were age 55-64, and 31% were age 65+.

Kars4Kids: Why is reading aloud so important for children? What does the adult get out of reading aloud to children?

Jordan Mains: Research on youth literacy has shown us how important the read-aloud experience is for children. Most experts agree that reading aloud is the single most important factor in helping children to develop their vocabulary as well as their reading and language skills, and that’s what we believe as well.

Adults who read aloud to children enjoy meaningful and worthwhile experiences and the satisfaction of knowing they are making a positive impact on the future of a child.

Kars4Kids: How has COVID-19 affected the work of Everybody Wins! Iowa?

Jordan Mains: Unfortunately COVID-19 has affected our ability to implement our programs in-person. In the meantime, our Power Read program has moved to an online format, and students and mentors are meeting via Zoom each week. Some of our programs have transitioned to a new “pen pal” program format, which are bi-weekly exchanges between the students and their mentors writing about what they are reading, how they are doing, etc. While these students and mentors are not able to share a book in person, their relationships are still maintained in these letter exchanges.

Letter from mentee to everybody wins iowa mentor
Letter from a young mentee to a much-missed mentor, during COVID-19 pandemic

We know that it is highly important for students to have books of their own, and for that reason, we have been working hard to ensure that we are still able to distribute books to our students. Our goal is that each student in our program will receive at least four books throughout the school year.

During these times, we have also implemented a “virtual story time” program to provide students and families with videos of our volunteers reading favorite children’s books and stories. This provides students with another option to hear stories and books read aloud on demand that they can access on our YouTube channel.

Kars4Kids: What’s next for Everybody Wins! Iowa?

Jordan Mains: We are very much looking forward to returning to in-person activities once we are able, although we do not yet know when that will be due to the ongoing pandemic. Safety is our number one priority, and we will not be returning to any sort of in-person programming until we know it is safe to do so. But, we will be very excited to do so once that day finally comes.