PEKIN — Most parents don’t expect their pediatrician to talk about reading.
At UnityPoint Health Pediatrics - Pekin East, all seven pediatricians have gone through the Reach Out and Read training program to help them do just that. At every well-child exam for children six months to 5-years-old, doctors counsel parents on the importance of reading to their children and even give them a book to help get started.
The truth is, reading to a very young child is much more than entertainment.
“Ninety percent of brain development happens before a child enters kindergarten,” said Dr. Ashley Fischer, the UnityPoint Health pediatrician who brought the Reach Out and Read program to Pekin. “I know it feels silly to read to a six month-old child — they can’t even sit up yet — but they are already imitating all these noises you are making, all these sounds you are saying. So when you are reading aloud to them you are going to help them to learn these new sounds and new words.”
The Reach Out and Read program targets low-income families who tend to lag behind their wealthier peers in language development. The program is not new, but it is new to Pekin. Reach Out and Read was developed in 1989 by a pair of pediatricians at Boston Medical Center, and over the years, programs have sprung up all around the country. Two pediatrics facilities in Peoria have been using it for a number of years.
“I did my residency with OSF through their pediatrics program,” said Fischer. “So that’s how I was introduced to it. When I started practice here I used to provide books for the rooms that kids could read, and multiple times a day they would ask if they could take them home just because they don’t have books at home. It would break my heart.”
Fischer decided it was time to enroll in the Reach Out and Read program when her practice moved into the new building on Griffin Avenue.
“We had more storage space and I had a couple more resources at my disposal. It was a program I had planned to do for a while,” she said.
It’s not easy to be accepted into the program, which provides books at cost. There’s lots of documentation required. But Fischer didn’t have any trouble proving her clientele fit the required income status.
“The Pekin school district did a study looking at how many children are taking advantage of the subsidized food program, and it’s somewhere around 65 percent, which is pretty high. It’s one of the reasons we qualified for the program,” said Fischer.
Another requirement was to show a commitment to literacy which Fischer fulfilled by putting a lending library in the lobby. Parents and children can take home as many books as they want. And when children turn five and age out of Reach Out and Read, they still can get free books from the lending library.
“When we started this program we started advertising that we were looking for donations, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have spread the word,” said Fischer. “People have been coming forward and donating these books.”
Eventually Fischer is hoping to have volunteers reading to children in the office lobby.
“We have already had a couple of volunteers say they want to do it, so we are just waiting on a rocking chair,” said Fischer. “We will try to do it during busier times, when all the providers are in and we know there is going to be a pretty full waiting room.”
Pediatricians in Pekin hand out about 10 books a day through the Reach Out and Read Program with the hope that they will help bridge the word gap between high and low socioeconomic children
“A study at Stanford found that kids in the lower socioeconomic class hear 30 million less words by kindergarten compared to high socioeconomic kids,” said Fischer.
Reading introduces children to words they would likely never otherwise hear.
“Think of all the goofy things in kids books, like ‘give a moose a muffin.’” said Fischer. “When talking to parents about the program always give ‘castle’ as an example. I don’t ever say ‘castle,’ and my kids would never hear that word if it weren’t for the books.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.