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June 30, 2021

Dreams Really Do Come True

Angie Matthiessen, Executive Director of the United Way of Charlotte County

It was the summer of 2018, and Charlotte County applied for and joined the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in partnership with the Suncoast Campaign. This movement of 390 communities in 44 states hosted their national conference, and I was fortunate to attend, witnessing the best of the best communities working to ensure kids were reading by third grade. What we have discovered in these three years is that together anything is possible in the relay race for the lives of our children. 

That fall, the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Charlotte 2019 (LC19) class began their journey with Community Services Day, where nonprofits share their work, hoping to inspire the class to pick their project. It is no secret that every nonprofit wants its project selected. In the United Way Charlotte County office, we dreamed of making the best offering related to grade-level reading. 

What if our community had a mobile book bus, a legacy vehicle for change and impact? The planning included Carmel Kisiday, Director of Early Learning at Charlotte County Public Schools and Shiloh Burger, Engagement Team member with The Patterson Foundation and Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The intention was for the book bus to travel around Charlotte County, allowing easy access for families to books and other resources. A book bus allows partners to go where our families are. 

Once the idea was pitched to LC19 and it was selected for their project, we were beyond thrilled. The school system agreed to donate a bus, the Boys & Girls Club agreed to be the lead partner with responsibility of the bus, and forward movement began. 

Larry Taylor of Johnson-Taylor Funeral Home and Kiwanis leader heard about the book bus and was so excited for Kiwanis to commit long term to provide books. The last time I spoke with Larry in the spring of 2019, he was thrilled to share he had received an agreement for this commitment. He died shortly thereafter and now looks down on this book bus with that very large smile, so proud of all the people who made it happen. The Kiwanis Punta Gorda After Hours firmly agreed to this long-term commitment.

The LC19 class ran with the project, raised funds with their annual event and several sponsorships. During the pandemic, the class stayed focused, inspiring community partners who donated their time and talents to labor and materials. Harbor Heights/Peace River Rotary Club and their members’ businesses mobilized for the buildout of the bus. 

Fast forward to last week and the ribbon-cutting for Lizzy the Literacy Bus. A few folks from the class asked proudly, is it what you envisioned? A resounding YES, worthy of a 1st place Gold medal!! 

Each LC19 class member who wanted to build a legacy for this community contributed to the blood, sweat, and, I am certain, tears it took to rip out the seats and build it back. Most of the classmates will attest Katie Wallace of Wallace Law Firm led this leg of the race. She humbly and graciously accepted flowers from her classmates, thanking her.  

What can a community achieve when we all come together? The proof is here. A true community collaborative to be immensely proud of. The bus hit the road – already busy with visits to the elementary school summer programs. 

The baton has passed, and the next leg of the relay race managed by the Boys & Girls Club will surely be the most important. Lynn Dorler of the Boys & Girls Club shared last week of a child excitedly entering the bus like it was Christmas Day. Our children need the joy Lizzy can bring to this community. Lynn is ready, and so is his team to ensure its success. 

This week, the state released the results of 3rd-grade reading scores, and we were able to see the effects of the COVID-19 slide. Thirty-eight percent of our third graders not scoring proficiently in reading tells us that we cannot stop now. The earlier in life we start, the better. Encouraging the love of reading is everything, and Lizzy will be our vehicle for that. 

Student success in school and life is at the heart of all the partners involved with making the book bus happen, and its future will depend on the community’s commitment. Are you in? Let us know what you think about Lizzy the Literacy Bus. 

For more information about United Way of Charlotte County’s mission: Mobilizing the power of our community to break the cycle of poverty, please contact Angie Matthiessen, the Executive Director of United Way of Charlotte County. She can be reached at or at 941-627-3539.


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