DES MOINES, Iowa — The mission is simple: Everybody wins when you read with a child.  This month, the local nonprofit is celebrating two decades of helping kids who are struggling to read.

The reading and mentoring organization, Everybody Wins! Iowa, began back in 2002 with just about a dozen students.  Since then, volunteers have helped 9400 students across seven school districts.

As a kid Julie Penton, 25, didn’t like to read, that was until she met Jill Downing.

“I couldn’t wait until Thursday came. Just to see her. She would always run into the library and give me a big hug and so who doesn’t want to be a part of that,” Downing said.

“I just remember smiling ‘cuz this is the time I learned how to read,” said Penton.

The pair started reading together for an hour once a week when Penton was in 2nd grade and kept reading together for years. 

“You get a variety of children to mentor. Some of them they literally need help with their reading,” Drew Gentsch, long-time supporter of Everybody Wins! Iowa. “With others, they have issues where having that stable adult in their life that shows up on a regular basis really helps.”

Gentsch has supported Everybody Wins from the beginning. He served on the first board of directors and continues reading with students to this day.

“It’s something obviously near and dear to my heart.  If you can’t read, you know you’ve got some major problems in our society,” said Gentsch.

For some students, the reading sessions are a fun part of their school day, but for others, it’s life changing.

“I would not be where I am without Jill coming to meet with me every week,” Penton said.

Penton went on to graduate from high school and Iowa State University with a degree in engineering.  She now works as an electric designer in California and says her mentor made all the difference.

“Julie Penton is all the enthusiasm you need. You can’t help but be a cheerleader for her,” said Downing.

“We’re cheerleaders for each other,” added Penton.

A mentorship that turned into a lifelong friendship.

Everybody Wins! Iowa is holding a 20th anniversary celebration August 31 at the Tom and Ruth Harkin Center at Drake University. Former Senator Harkin brought the program to Iowa and will be there to mark the milestone.