A new program in Fayette County to “Reach Out and Read” to young children has been established to complement pediatric care.
Pediatric research has found that reading success as an adult is directly linked to the earliest reading experiences.
Children raised in households where reading is lacking — whether it is due to lack of money to buy books, parents who were not read to as children themselves, or parents who are illiterate — can be poised for failure .
This failure can take the form of school absenteeism and dropouts, substance abuse or teen-age pregnancy, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and dependency.
A national pediatric literacy program begun 12 years at Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center, can be considered preventive medicine — giving away books to children following a doctor’s visit to develop early reading skills and ensure success when children enter school.
The Reach Out and Read Program is in all 50 states with 1,400 local sites, now including Fayette County, and gives away more than 3 million books each year. Program officials estimate that 1.5 million children are served annually.
Uniontown’s Laurel Pediatrics launched its Reach Out and Read program last month, and according to Dr. Malini Sridharan, the center’s medical director, it has met with great success.
Sridharan learned about the concept several years ago during a pediatric medical conference. “Next to medicine, education is most important to children,” she said. “Once they are immunized, you concentrate on how they learn.”
According to the program’s Web site, literacy promotion becomes a standard part of pediatric primary care. Doctors and nurses are trained to advise parents about the importance of reading aloud.
At the wellness checkups, at 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18 months of age, and for 2 through 5 years old, the pediatrician and nurse practitioner give the child a developmentally appropriate book to take home.
Program coordinator Janelle Barus, said that, by age 5 the children will acquire 10 books for their personal library.
Age-appropriate books range from board books for infants and toddlers to favorites that parents will remember, such as “Curious George”.
Volunteers sit in the waiting room and read aloud to children before their visit, showing parents and children the fun of looking at books together. This is important, said Sridharan, because the volunteer reader is modeling to parents how they should read to their children.
She stresses that Reach Out and Read is not a reading education program but one that “instills the love of books at an early stage of a child’s life.”
Barus said anyone can volunteer to read at Laurel Pediatrics. There are volunteers with early-childhood education backgrounds, retired people and teen-agers looking for community service opportunities. Barus said anyone who feels comfortable reading can volunteer for a few hours a day. The practice has a training session for the readers.
Barus said volunteers sit in the patient waiting room, either sitting with a book in their laps or asking children to pick a book to read. “So many of the kids can’t wait to get back out there after their checkup” to continue being read to, she said.
“This program is aimed at parents not already reading” to their children, Sridharan added.
Barus said the program focuses on persons of lower incomes. These parents themselves may not have an interest in reading or may not have the money to purchase books, she said, but through the program “we’re providing them books at home to bring about that interest.”
Sridharan applied to the Reach Out and Read National Center, based in Somerville, Mass. for a start-up grant. This grant, according to the program’s Web site, covers start-up expenses and a portion of first year’s budget. Each site is then responsible for obtaining funds for continued support.
Barus said it costs $25 to furnish each child with his collection of books.
This is where the Fayette County community comes in.
The local program is seeking donations of books, either new or “gently used,” and monetary donations to keep the program going. Donated books are placed in the waiting room to occupy children’s minds before and after their checkups.
Sridharan said a partnership with the Fayette Literacy Council allows them to refer to the council adults who are illiterate.
Information from the Fayette Literacy Council indicates that Fayette County has one of the 10 highest illiteracy rates in the United States. Out of a population of 145,351, more than 2,000 adults have less than a fifth-grade education and almost 45,000 adults do not have a high school diploma.
Sridharan said it appears 1 in 10 parents who bring their children to the practice are not reading. “You can see that” when children are being read to, including how the child grasps the book, she said.
Sridharan concluded that one of the best things a parent can do for their child, whether infant or school-age is to read. “Kids do better in school because of that,” she said.