Nonprofit Spotlight: How a book is like a toothbrush
A health-care provider’s services during a well-child visit might include evaluating developmental milestones, advising parents about nutrition, providing immunizations and, increasingly, prescribing reading aloud time to families and providing age-appropriate books to children.
Including reading as a part of comprehensive health care to our state’s youngest children, age 6 months to 5 years, is the mission of Reach Out and Read Colorado, which is known as one of the most active and successful affiliates of the national Reach Out and Read organization.
The national organization started in Boston in 1989, and Reach Out and Read Colorado began in Denver in 1997. It has grown from there. Alessandra Davis was a driving force in starting the program in our area, instrumental in bringing the literacy program to Mountain Family Health Centers in 2005. She continues to serve as its volunteer coordinator.
Her husband, Ken Davis, a family practice physician’s assistant at Mountain Family Health who is the health system’s medical director of integrated care, is also a Reach Out and Read champion. He explained that health literacy, the ability to understand complex ideas and manage one’s own behaviors to live a healthy life, starts with basic literacy and can begin at a very young age. Giving a child a book at a medical appointment is like giving a child a toothbrush at a dental visit. These tangible tools aid children in adopting self-management behaviors that can prevent or mitigate chronic health problems over a lifetime.
Along with encouraging self-management behaviors, Davis said participating in the literacy program helps children experience a collaborative caring environment and promotes connected communication within families and beyond.
Like Mountain Family Health, Reach Out and Read Colorado gives special consideration to low-income families. The literacy program is a seemingly small intervention that can have a huge effect at overcoming health and educational difficulties growing out of limited resources.
Davis cited research showing that reading aloud to young children, even infants, helps young brains grow and develop neural connections. Touch and the calming sound of parents’ voices — key elements of family reading aloud time — also contribute to healthy development.
Davis and Carol Wells-Federman, northwest regional coordinator for the Colorado organization, emphasized that one of the benefits of the literacy program is that it helps parents in all socioeconomic groups understand that they are their children’s first teachers. Davis added that parents often express pride in regularly reading to their children and said the program motivates many parents to improve their own literacy and language skills.
Wells-Federman explained that program participation fosters greater involvement with Garfield County libraries, especially among low-income and immigrant families. She said this is another way the program helps children take the path of lifetime learning.
Many providers in our area have joined the organization’s literacy mission. One of the ways Reach Out and Read Colorado encourages participation is by recognizing Bookend communities, areas in which all health-care providers to young children participate in the program. Glenwood Springs earned that distinction in 2010 and celebrated with an event hosted by Glenwood Medical Associates. (Other Colorado Bookend communities are the town of Rocky Ford, and Crowley, Washington, Yuma and Lincoln counties).
The program has also grown significantly in Garfield County since 2005. Organization statistics from the first half of 2014 project that the year’s totals will show 6,544 books provided and 2,988 children served. That means the program is reaching almost 70 percent of Garfield County’s 4,422 (Kids Count In Colorado) children younger than 5.
Wells-Federman and Davis talked about independent studies that show the benefits of participating in the literacy program:
• Reach Out and Read children score three to six months ahead of their non-participating peers in vocabulary development, which helps them start school on target. Children who start school on track are more likely to reach their full educational and social potential.
• Vocabulary skills at age 3 correlate with reading test scores in third grade, which in turn, predict high school graduation rates.
• Reach Out and Read families report reading to their children more often and that sharing books with them is one of their three favorite family activities.
Reach Out and Read Colorado is its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit that receives a combination of private and state and county funding. The organization hosts an annual “Green Eggs and Ham” benefit breakfast, encourages donations of new and gently used books and provides multiple volunteer opportunities.
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