Much like Roald Dahl’s beloved character Matilda, books were my world as a young child. Growing up in the 1990’s, when the Internet was in its infancy, school book fairs were just about the most exciting thing I could imagine. I learned to read ahead of kindergarten from my mom reading me classics like Dr. Seuss’s Wacky Wednesday and P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? Even now, with a computer in my pocket and a wealth of information at my fingertips, there is still a certain satisfaction that comes from holding a book and flipping its pages. Thankfully I am long past my desire to eat them like I did as a toddler.
In 2018 I joined the Cherry Health AmeriCorps team as Coordinator of the Reach Out and Read program, and my passion for literacy was renewed. Reach Out and Read, aimed at children from 6 months to 5 years of age, promotes early development and helps to build home libraries by supplying children with free books during their Well Child exams. Physical and mental growth are highly active during the first five years of life, and engaging with books is one of the important ways in which children develop the basic skills they will need to thrive. However, many families face barriers to book access, whether it be a lack of libraries nearby, undocumented status preventing them from obtaining a library card, lack of technology for downloading e-books, or a myriad of other reasons. By giving books directly to children from a medical provider – someone they are more likely to see than a librarian – Reach Out and Read circumvents those barriers, giving children from disenfranchised communities a better chance at building resilience and carrying that resilience with them into adulthood.
When I started, there were 6 Cherry Health sites participating in Reach Out and Read in Kent and Montcalm Counties. With financial support from the PNC Foundation, we were able to expand programming to the Maternal Infant Health Program and provide books at more pediatric appointments. This expansion now includes newborns through 5 months of age, because even before reading comprehension develops, infants can use sturdy board books to learn how to interact with the world. Now serving 800 households, MIHP provides new moms with resources such as baby care items and breastfeeding support, and now can also deliver brand-new books directly to patients’ homes.
While we hesitated to give out books at the beginning of the pandemic, before we knew that COVID-19 was primarily airborne, I’m glad to have been able to rejuvenate the program and ensure that all of our participating sites are well stocked over the past few months. As we become increasingly reliant on our screens to safely interact with others, I think books are more important than ever. For children, books can be a friend. They can be a tool of self-discovery, a source of knowledge, or a gateway to another world. I love Reach Out and Read because not only is it a prescription for success, but also a way for me to instill my passion for reading into the next generation.
By: Elliott Grant, AmeriCorps Member