Five Questions With: Petra Jenkins

Petra Jenkins, account manager at General Mills, works at a multibillion dollar company in the wholesale club industry where she helps manage $180 million in sales and oversees the frozen, dairy and refrigerated portfolios.

Deeply involved in the community, Jenkins is vice chair of United Way of Rhode Island’s Women’s Leadership Circle, an all-volunteer group that brings women together to improve childhood literacy. She will step into the role as chair on July 1 to begin a two-year leadership term. In addition to the WLC, Jenkins is currently on the board of the Alliance Francaise de Providence, serves on the Women Ending Hunger Committee of the R.I. Community Food Bank and volunteers as a mentor for young girls through Foster Forward.

PBN: You’re deeply involved with United Way’s Women’s Leadership Circle, an all-volunteer group that harnesses the power of women and our communities to improve childhood literacy. What attracted you to join the group and later take on a leadership role?

JENKINS: I’m someone with a lot of passion who likes to get involved with organizations and causes where I feel I can make a real difference. Literacy has always been important to me, so I was attracted not only to what the WLC stands for, but also the lasting change they’re working to create.

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I think eyes are opened when people learn that just one-third of Rhode Island fourth-graders are proficient in reading. There’s really no reason for that, especially when a student’s ability to read plays such a critical role in their future. We know that once a child falls behind, it can be extremely difficult to catch up; it’s a domino effect.

Through the WLC, I have an opportunity to change this. I’m excited to assume the role of chair because of the importance of this work and because this is a group of extremely dedicated women who want to ensure every child has an opportunity to succeed in both school and in life.

PBN: Part of the WLC’s commitment to childhood literacy is its support of summer learning programs, including a recent substantial investment in programming for the coming summer. How do these two areas go hand-in-hand?

JENKINS: I think everyone needs to understand the reality of summer learning loss. Students from low-income households lose up to two months of reading comprehension and two months of math skills when not engaged in learning over the summer. This means teachers need to revisit curriculum from the previous year in September, instead of introducing new material.

During our executive committee retreat last fall, we learned about the elimination of an external funding source that left United Way with a $250,000 shortfall for its Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative this summer. As a group, we immediately put forth a challenge to match all donations through the end of December in the amount of $56,503. The community’s response was incredible in meeting the challenge, but there was still a shortfall that would impact 200 children who need the program the most.

So, this spring, we decided to fill the remaining gap in its entirety with an additional gift of $60,000. Closing this shortfall was a natural fit and progression to the work we’re already doing and speaks volumes of the passion within the WLC to initiate real change that is felt directly by the children we want to help.

PBN: What are some of the ways the group, as well as members independently, helps further the goals of the WLC, and what is the group’s involvement on a statewide level?

JENKINS: There are a lot of ways our members, both as part of the larger group and also individually, help advance our childhood literacy work. We’re currently in the midst of our annual Children’s Book Drive in partnership with United Way, and many of our members are hosting collections at their places of work, in their neighborhoods and among family and friends.

On a very personal level, we had a member run the Boston Marathon to raise funds in support of summer learning – a first for our group. She set a goal of raising $3,000 and exceeded that amount. We also host an annual event called “Power of the Purse” – a fundraiser and awareness event, which introduces people to our work and ways they can get involved. Because our members live in communities across Rhode Island, the impact of our volunteerism – whether reading to students in afterschool programs or at libraries, preparing books for distribution to children and more – is felt statewide. I can’t overstate how passionate our members are about helping children, especially around something as essential as reading.

PBN: The WLC and United Way helped create a successful book drive, now entering its sixth year with a goal of engaging more individuals and establishing new collection sites. What’s the local need for children to have age-appropriate books in their home and how can people get involved?

JENKINS: The number of children growing up in homes without books is simply staggering; two-thirds of kids living in poverty have no age-appropriate books; and when you educate people about the need, they want to get involved and help. Our book drive gives children the opportunity to select their own books and begin building their personal home library. We’ve been overwhelmed by the community’s response over the past five years – 125,000 books and counting – and hope to engage even more people this year. There’s a great deal of generosity in Rhode Island and giving children the gift of reading is a gift they’ll keep their entire life.

This year’s effort began on April 24 and continues through June 2, and there are a lot of ways people can get involved. You can host your own collection at work or in your neighborhood; you can also donate books by dropping them off at one of our collection sites. We’re also accepting financial donations that we’ll use to purchase books. There’s a lot of great information about the drive on United Way’s website. But more than anything, if you’re inspired, get involved. It’s easy to make a difference.

PBN: What advice would you give someone looking to get more involved in their community in support of a specific cause, and why is the WLC a group to consider joining?

JENKINS: One of the best things about the WLC is that you can get involved in an area of our work that interests you. Beyond that, my best advice is that everyone has something to offer to help make a difference – there is power in numbers. Whether your strength is fundraising or engaging others, or you prefer hands-on activities [such as] reading to children or distributing backpacks during the Back to School Celebration event in August, the WLC offers something for everyone.

The goal of our group is to ensure all children have a level playing field and access to the opportunities that help them reach their full potential. When children are strong readers, they develop confidence that carries over into the classroom. And when you’re more confident in the classroom, you’re better prepared to learn and succeed. It’s an amazing win-win, not to mention the great people you’ll meet. If people are interested in joining the group, they can learn more online.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a PBN staff writer.