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Booking agent: Smart Start Rowan’s Reach Out and Read program stresses the importance of literacy

By Susan Shinn Turner
Smart Start Rowan

For the Pulliam family, a love of reading spans four generations.

Karsen, 3, and Kyzer, 1, have family members clamoring to read to them. That includes their grandmother, Tammy Jones, their great-aunt, Machelle Pulliam, their great-grandmother, Lillian Pulliam, and their parents, Mikael Pulliam and Brandi Riddle.

That’s why the whole family was thrilled for the boys to receive books recently from their pediatrician, Dr. Desiree Johnson, during a visit to Novant Health Salisbury Medical.

Sponsored by Smart Start Rowan, Reach Out and Read puts books into the hands of children and families during each wellness visit to the pediatrician, beginning at 6 months of age. By the time children are 6, they have a library that’s all their own.

“We have books, but more books are always good,” Riddle says. “Machelle and Lillian watch the boys while we work. They spend a lot of time with the boys.”

And a lot of that time is spent reading, Riddle notes. “Karsen doesn’t read yet, but he’ll get a book with Kyzer and points out the pictures. He’ll make him sit down with him.”

“We’ve been doing Reach Out and Read for quite a while,” says Johnson, who founded the practice 20 years ago. “The parents love it and I think they don’t realize the impact of giving a child his or her very own book.”

During wellness visits, Johnson and Dr. Acquawon Stallworth literally give parents a “prescription to read.”

“I give them my spiel about how important books are for expanding a child’s vocabulary and creating bonding time with their child,” Johnson says. “I can tell they’re listening to me, but then they come back on subsequent visits and say how wonderful it is to read together. The kids tell me all about the books they received on previous visits. This program is part of our ongoing relationship with families.”

“It really allows you to tie in family time together,” she adds. “It’s a way to reconnect with a child at the end of a long day, and it’s a window into literacy in day-to-day living. Books and reading should be about more than school and homework time.”

Johnson continues, “With our particular patient population, we have parents who may not start out with high literacy. Over the years, our practice has evolved into a practice that treats a high-risk segment of the community. We have a high population of immigrants who may not have English as a first language. We have English-speaking families who are poor and struggling, and for whom their education may not be strong enough that they feel comfortable being a source of literacy for their children.”

Stallworth agrees.

“I think the program is great,” she says. “The kids’ faces just light up when they get the books. The parents and guardians like the idea of time spent with the kids and the opportunity to give their children a head start in school. I never have any trouble giving away books. The kids don’t care if they are new or used. If any child asks for a book in our office, we are happy to share them.”

“Our physicians start talking about literacy at the first visit,” says Lisa Edwards, program coordinator for Reach Out and Read. Last year, more than 7,000 books were distributed at six pediatric and medical practices across Rowan County: Cleveland Pediatrics, Salisbury Pediatric Associates, Rowan County Health Department, Novant Heath — Granite Quarry Internal Medicine, Novant Health — Milestone Family Medical, and Novant Health Salisbury Medical.

Statistics bear out this program.

Studies show that if there are no books in the house, the child has a 94 percent chance of dropping out of high school. If there are 100 books in the house, the child has a 92 percent chance of graduating high school, and if there are 500 books in the house, the child has a 94 percent chance of graduating college.

Smart Start Rowan serves children throughout Rowan County ages birth to 5. It became affiliated with United Way in 2015, and has used that funding to expand its Reach Out and Read Program. The program serves approximately eight out of 10 children ages birth to 5 in Rowan County. Edwards is trying to secure funding to give books to children even earlier.

Amy Brown, Smart Start Rowan’s executive director, says that United Way is to credit for the agency being able to reach so many children.

“The support from the Rowan County United Way has provided us with the wonderful opportunity to serve such a large percentage of our community’s birth — age 5 population,” Brown says. “Both of our agencies believe that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers, and that establishing a love of reading in the early years leads to better performance in school and success throughout life. We simply could not implement the Reach Out and Read program the way that we do without our partnership with the United Way.”

Reading to a child starts early, Johnson notes.

“We even introduce books before a baby is born,” she says. “We encourage parents to read aloud. When you talk about ways to bond with a child, books tend to be at the top of the list.”

Johnson has chosen to treat entire families, not just children or adults.

“I have a hard time disconnecting care from just one family member,” Johnson says “Taking care of the whole family really feels natural. It’s a natural process.”

She often sees parents who are either illiterate or partially literate. “You see that because you have that relationship with them. It gives us a window to ask how well the parents can read and comprehend and understand. It gives us a safe zone.”

Over the years, Johnson has referred parents to the Rowan County Literacy Council, another United Way agency, for help with reading.

The medical practice keeps a good library of books to share. Edwards has collected gently used books from Sacred Heart Catholic School on three different occasions. Staff members also bring in gently used books.

“They are greatly appreciated,” Edwards notes. “We always need books.”

Johnson says of Reach Out and Read, “It has become a priceless addition to what we do. I consider myself someone who just takes care of a child’s health, but I want to help the whole child to grow and become a contributing part of society.”

Smart Start Rowan is a United Way member agency.

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