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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Mickenzie Beckett, left, Deseret Management Corporation employee, Sherri Fountaine of Beneficial Life, Dana Burnett of Beneficial Life, and Colleen Hanson of Temple Square Hospitality, paint a mural for the school library during the 25th annual Day of Caring at Lincoln Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. More than 3,000 volunteers from 90 local companies helped United Way of Salt Lake celebrate service and volunteerism during its 25th annual Day of Caring. Volunteers spent nearly 15,000 total hours completing 100 one-day projects throughout Davis, Salt Lake, and Summit counties.

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Stephanie Fullmer works in an elementary school library with geography books from the 1990s.

Without new books, it's hard to get kids excited about reading, she said.

For the past eight years at Lincoln Elementary, Fullmer has been accepting used book donations and hoping for more funding.

So when Deseret Management Corp. announced it would give a $5,000 check to the elementary school library as part of the United Way Day of Caring, Fullmer started crying.

"Books are expensive," she said, "but this will go a long way in our library. It will give us such a boost."

The 25th annual United Way Day of Caring brought more than 100 company employees and community members to the elementary school Thursday. Another 3,000 volunteers worked on 100 single-day projects throughout Davis, Salt Lake and Summit counties.

And more projects are planned throughout the month, said United Way CEO Bill Crim.

"Volunteer efforts, if they really want to make a difference, have to be organized. They have to be aligned with what’s needed in the school," Crim said. "It takes an organization like United Way to work with the school and set it all up, so when people show up, they’re ready to go."

At Lincoln Elementary, volunteers helped relocate the school's food pantry, talked about future jobs and college degrees, painted a mural for the library, and read books with students.

"It’s always nice for the kids to see other people who love reading," said Adam Dahlberg, a fifth-grade teacher. "If they love to read, they can be successful going forward."

When kids visit the library, "they want the Disney books, they want the superhero books, they want the 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' books,” Fullmer said, but she often didn't have enough copies to go around.

"With that $5,000, we’re going to be able to branch off into the 21st century," Principal Milton Collins said.

Collins, who's in his first year as principal at Lincoln, said learning to read isn't the only challenge his students face.

Nearly 520 schoolchildren attend Lincoln Elementary, and nearly 95 percent are on free or reduced-cost lunch. Many students are refugees, he said, and almost half the children in South Salt Lake live in poverty.

Kids often learn English as a second language, as there are roughly 25 languages spoken in the school, including Swahili, Somali, Farsi, Arabic and Spanish.

Another problem is food insecurity. Residents in South Salt Lake live in the middle of a food desert — meaning there aren't any local grocery stores.

Children who go to school hungry often struggle in school, according to data from hunger-relief organization Feeding America, and 1 in 6 kids in the United States may not know where their next meal comes from.

To combat hungry students and families, Lincoln Elementary keeps a stocked community food pantry at the school. Day of Caring volunteers moved the food to a larger storage room that's more accessible to parents.

"Having a group of volunteers help organize the food pantry really helps us try to supplement that need for a lot of families," said Abram Sherrod, a United Way community school director.

If elementary students can meet the required reading levels in third grade, they are more likely to succeed in eighth-grade math scores, Sherrod said. And from there, they are more on track to graduate high school.

"Kids need inspiring and caring adults year-round," Crim said. "When every kid starts to graduate, the difference every single individual makes adds up to an entire transformation of a community."