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CASA GRANDE — With a new Footsteps2Brilliance program, United Way of Pinal County hopes to improve literacy rates throughout the area and instill a love of reading among children.

The bilingual literacy program targets prekindergarten through third grade children, encouraging them to log on, play games and learn to read while having fun.

The program is free and may be accessed through the United Way of Pinal County website on a computer, smartphone or mobile device.

Allen Villalobos, chief executive officer of United Way of Pinal County, said that more than 98% of Pinal County parents have at least one smart device or a computer in their home, giving the program reach throughout the area.

“We’re very excited to have this program for anyone in Pinal County to access,” Villalobos said. “So many parents use smart devices such as phones or tablets to entertain their kids and let them play. With this program, the children can play and learn at the same time.”

The Footsteps2Brilliance program provides children an early start on reading and vocabulary expansion. It does not replace face-to-face learning programs but rather enhances a child’s ability to learn to read.

“By the first day of kindergarten, they’ll have a level of proficiency with some words and phrases. It will make them more confident,” Villalobos said.

The program was donated to United Way of Pinal County.

Greg Spencer, vice president of Footsteps2brilliance, arranged the donation. It’s one of many he’s arranged in communities across the country.

Spencer, a literary evangelist, said he’s passionate about education because as a child, he dropped out of school at age 9.

“I couldn’t read,” Spencer said. “I lived in Oakland at the time and I dropped out of school and joined a gang.”

He later returned to school, left the gang life and now works to eliminate illiteracy and barriers to reading in communities across the country. He was a teacher, principal and superintendent.

Footsteps2Brilliance empowers parents, supports educators and disrupts the status quo by providing learning programs that children enjoy, he said.

“The programs are culturally rich and socially focused,” he said. “It’s for all children.”

The program includes thousands of interactive e-books, songs and games in English or Spanish, in a game-based environment that engages students.

Parents who spend 15 minutes a day using Footsteps2Brilliance with their children see gains in vocabulary and critical thinking. The bilingual curriculum enables parents who speak English as a second language to prepare their children for academic success, Spencer said.

A recent study of the program showed that students who used Footsteps2Brilliance gained seven months of vocabulary acquisition in one month of using the program.

“That’s almost an entire year’s worth of academic progress,” Spencer said.

Parents may sign up a child for the Footsteps2Brilliance program by visiting the United Way of Pinal County website, unitedwayofpc.org.

A link on the website directs parents to the registration site managed for United Way by the J.O. Combs Unified School District.

Parents may register in English or Spanish.

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Melissa St. Aude is the Arts & Entertainment editor at PinalCentral. She can be reached at mstaude@pinalcentral.com.