Junior Leader Reader Hits 50K Book Milestone

Program Founder Ryan Yamka returns to celebrate at Pine Ridge Prep Preschool

September 14, 2022, Topeka, KS—The founder of United Way of Greater Topeka’s Junior Leader Reader (JLR) program returned to the city today as the organization’s Young Leaders Society (YLS) celebrated a program milestone.

Ryan Yamka, who started JLR to honor the memory of his father, joined United Way staff, partners and volunteers at Pine Ridge Prep Preschool to read a story and pass out books to the students. With this Fall’s reading sessions, .

See WIBW’s story about the celebration. 

Yamka said he had two goals in mind when he founded JLR in 2010: “The first was to create a reading program which honored my father, Harry Yamka, and his dedication to helping children.”

“The second was to create a reading program that puts books into the hands of children who may not have easy access to them. With the second goal being the most important, it was vital to create a program that was not only sustainable through donations and volunteering, but one that could thrive and flourish in order for it to be successful in the future.”

Ryan Yamka

Yamka thanked the young leaders who carried on JLR after he moved from the area. “Although I kicked off the program,” he said,” it has grown into the success that it is because of the generous people that have donated both time and money to the program. I look forward to being there for the 100,000th book to be given out!”

Yamka also surprised the attendees by presenting a $1,000 check to sponsor the next round of JLR books.

Each year YLS plans two or three JLR sessions. Volunteers arrive in kindergarten and preschool classrooms to read a book to the students and bring a copy of the book for each student to take home. JLR is made possible through the ongoing generosity of corporate and individual sponsorships.

After a brief program featuring current United Way of Greater Topeka staff, community partners, and Young Leaders Society members, Yamka read to Pine Ridge Prep students.

JLR aligns with UWGT education goals

Jessica Lehnherr, CEO and President, United Way of Greater Topeka, said “Junior Leader Reader plays a critical role in our ability to reach our youngest community members, and to move forward on our impact goal of early education. This literacy program is also flagship for our Young Leaders Society, our affinity group for United Way donors that are 40 years of age or younger, or young-at-heart.”

Lehnherr noted that JLR was a perfect complement to United Way’s support of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, United Way of Greater Topeka’s book distribution partnership with Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library for children from birth to 5.

“Reading to children at an early age improves their learning in the classroom,” she said, “and helps ensure their readiness for kindergarten, which is a huge part of the work that we do.”

Trey George, a United Way board member, is the CEO and President of the Topeka Housing Authority, which manages the Pine Ridge neighborhood where the preschool lives. United Way was a founding partner of the preschool effort as part of its early education impact work.

“Education is a fundamental part of what we do in partnership with the communities we serve at Topeka Housing Authority,” George said. “While the Pine Ridge Prep neighborhood may have once been the exception 10 years ago, it has become a symbol of what true investment and development can look like with the right people, the right attitude, and the right resources in place. United Way of Greater Topeka and Young Leaders Society have been with Topeka Housing Authority every step of the way.”

“You wouldn’t necessarily think that putting a book in a pre-K student’s hands would make that much of an impact. The truth is, these books are a gateway. They help us get into people’s homes, to get to know them as neighbors, to learn what their needs are, and to respond accordingly. They give parents a chance to sit down and visit with their children, to learn more about how they envision the world around them. It gives folks in this neighborhood a tie-in to one another’s lives, to see their shared values and aspirations, and to build an honest sense of community. That’s what a book in a child’s hand can do. That’s what Junior Leader Reader does.”

Several original Young Leaders Society members attended the 50K celebration. Front row (left to right) Jamie Hornbaker, Ryan Yamka, Matt Dinkel. Back row (left to right): Kim Konecny, Sarah Sanders

Current YLS chair Joe Beasley closed out the program with thanks to all the partners and to Yamka for starting the program. Beasley also was part of the YLS celebration of the 30,000th book in 2017.

“As current chair of Young Leaders Society, I’m proud to carry on and be a part of the legacy that is Junior Leader Reader, Beasley said. “Reaching 50,000 distributed books is such an incredible mark for us as an affinity group. We want to thank all the schools for welcoming our volunteers in to share with your students over the past 12 years – we have enjoyed it as much as the students have.”



Until the Fight is Won.
Creating and cultivating an unbreakable network of support for a strong, healthy and equitable community.

United Way brings together people, companies and nonprofits in Shawnee, Jefferson, and Jackson Counties to create positive sustainable change in education, financial stability, and health. United Way remains dedicated to supporting Basic Needs, including food, rent and utilities, health and prescription access and safety from domestic violence.

The Young Leaders Society (YLS) is a group of community-oriented individuals or couples age 40 or younger who are committed to advancing United Way’s work in education, financial stability, and health.

YLS focuses on Early Education as the foundation of a child’s life. With the Born Learning Trail, YLS helps parents of preschool children turn everyday moments into learning opportunities.

Through the Junior Leader Reader program, YLS members read and distribute books to kindergarten and preschool students across Shawnee County.