At the WellSpan York Hospital Community Health Center, children receive more than just check-ups and immunizations. They also receive books, and they love it.
“Before age five, children get a lot of vaccines and associate unpleasant experiences with the doctor’s office,” admitted pediatrician Almira Contractor, MD. “For them to leave with something fun and positive like a book really helps.”
The health center is a 14-year participant in Reach Out and Read, a nationwide program for early literacy and school readiness.
In 2012, WellSpan physicians handed out 3,600 new books during well-child visits. There are no televisions in the health center’s waiting room, only stacks of books and volunteers who read them aloud.
“When children who’ve been exposed to this program enter school, their relationship to books is very different. They already know books as something that brings them pleasure,” explained Contractor, who serves as WellSpan’s medical director of Reach Out and Read.
But the books help the physicians, too, she said. By observing a child turn pages, they assess fine motor skills. A child who points out an animal to a doctor or parent is displaying social-interaction skills. Some pediatricians say a book can be as useful as a stethoscope.
The national Reach Out and Read program focuses on children aged six months to five years, but WellSpan expands those limits.
At two months, parents receive an early literacy information packet, thanks to a partnership with the York County Library System. Four-month-olds, meanwhile, get a “Read to Me” T-shirt courtesy of the Rotary Club of York.
WellSpan Reach Out and Read coordinator Nancy Orwick works with a variety of community groups to conduct children’s book drives. The gently used books they collect go to siblings, occasionally an ill child, or patients older than five, who have outgrown Reach Out and Read but still relish getting a book at the doctor’s office.
“It’s not that we’re teaching children how to read. We’re teaching children a love of reading,” Orwick said.
“This program is as important as immunizations,” Contractor added. “The immunizations protect them from illness, but the books prepare them for the future.” And sometimes, they offer simple comfort.
“A few months ago, there was a sick little girl whom I needed to send over to the hospital,” Contractor remembered.
“She was sitting on the stretcher as scared and miserable as can be, so I quickly picked out a book and gave it to her. She hugged it and held it tight as she went out.”