By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Amanda Crawford remembers her daughter coming home and asking that Eric Carle’s children’s classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” be read to her. She was insistent. Even though Crawford didn’t know the book, she started searching the rows of local bookstores until she found it.
“This is it!” Crawford exclaimed, holding up the well-worn book. She said that seeing her daughter’s joy in the book had been worth the effort to find it. Responding to that desire for a book she felt was crucial.
Now she uses it, along with other materials, serving as a United Way ReadingPal at the Building Blocks Academy early education center in Callahan.
Crawford is branch manager for VyStar’s Callahan site. A 10-year veteran with VyStar, her recent move from the Mandarin branch to Callahan has brought new opportunities — especially for Crawford’s drive to help young children.
“I talked to the staff, and we decided that most of us wanted to be part of ReadingPals,” Crawford said.
United Way staff brought ReadingPals training out to them, and Crawford went on to arrange a work schedule that allowed the staff to donate an hour a day to the children at the nearby early-learning center.
“It’s so important to expose these children to routine, structure and expose them early,” Crawford said. “For example, I never went to the dentist as a child; my mom was a single mom. I developed a fear because I never went. If you expose someone earlier, perceptions change.”
“VPK is so important,” she said. “They pick up routines, learn to self-regulate. It’s as simple as potty training — create that routine and children can be successful.”
As much as it’s made a difference to the children, it has also helped her team of employees.
“We share stories, share frustrations, help each other build skills,” Crawford said. “If you get your hands dirty with someone, break a sweat with someone then you know that person.”
Crawford knows first-hand the benefits of helping young children. Her own children attended Methodist Children’s Village on the Westside and Crawford began her United Way volunteering there three years ago.
“At first, it was projects like moving sand or washing chairs,” Crawford said. “Later, it became helping with ReadingPals.”
Crawford continues to grow in her volunteer leadership roles. She has served as an Achievers For Life mentor and is now the incoming chair of United Way’s Women in Local Leadership. Regardless of her role, she is always helping others grow and develop their skills.
“My mom was an assistant teacher, so I never got away from school,” Crawford said. “My mom kept me with her. She was my inspiration.”
Crawford hopes that she set an example with Callahan’s VyStar branch and ReadingPals that can be replicated elsewhere.