August 24, 2010

Paging Dr. Seuss to the Medical Clinic

Back to school is a busy time of year for families here in the District. It’s also a busy time of year in our medical clinic, as parents strive to ensure that their children are up-to-date with their check-ups and vaccinations before that first day of class.

But shots are not the only thing distributed here at Bread for the City. Nearly all young children who visit our medical clinic also walk away with a new book to read.

These books are provided through Reach Out and Read, a national program of which we became a DC coalition member in 2007. This program is designed to promote the love of reading to children at a young age (infant to 5-years-old) in order to establish the early foundations of literacy. Families served by the program read together more often, and their children enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed, with larger vocabularies, stronger language skills, and a developmental edge over their peers. With nearly one in five DC residents functioning at or below the basic prose literacy level, this program is a simple way that we can help future generations break the cycle of illiteracy and, in turn, poverty.

Believe it or not, a medical clinic provides a fine setting for encouraging literacy – especially a medical home like ours, in which we practice holistic primary care. Parents are encouraged to bring their kids in regularly and often for well child exams and to assess development in the critical formative years (many parents don’t even need the encouragement).

By using books during routine exams, providers empower families with the tools to develop language skills, vocabulary, and concepts—building blocks essential not only for reading, but also good health. Promoting healthy lifestyles with families is a basic principle, but now providers can also promote reading and the love of learning during exams.

For parents who themselves are illiterate, this task poses special difficulties—as they might prefer for their children not to see them struggling with reading themselves. However, even these parents can help. Our providers encourage parents who struggle with reading to simply describe for their children what is happening in the pictures on each page, and work with the child to correlate the image with the words being spoken and shown on printed page. This collaborative process is educational and bonding.

But in households where the budget is tight, necessities (food, rent) often take precedence over items such as books, much to the detriment of the child’s educational development. For many parents, a free book and a word of encouragement makes a world of difference – and for the child, it gives them a reason to look forward to the next visit to Bread for the City.

To our family nurse practitioner, Heather Rivasplata, the Reach Out and Read Program is made worthwhile when she sees children who have participated in our program go on to success in school. One such success is Jerson, a second grader and medical clinic patient for the past four years. Jerson and his family dropped by last week for a check-up and his parents mentioned how much he has really taken to reading books, many of which they’ve received from our clinic. At hearing this, Heather informed him and his parents about the local libraries, where Jerson can borrow any number of books for free. Jerson’s eyes lit up at hearing that remarkable news; in all likelihood, he has already become a new regular at his local branch.

So what can you do to help? We are currently accepting donations of new or gently used children’s books at our Northwest Center location. We need books for pre-school children the most. Bi-lingual books, especially in Spanish, are particularly welcome. Books can be dropped off at our Northwest Center location at 1525 7th Street, NW. Should you have any questions about making book donations, please contact Erin Garnaas-Holmes at And remember, every book we receive will give yet another family a reason to foster the love of reading in their children.

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