When Axzavion Harris headed off to kindergarten this fall, he was ready and eager to read.
Since birth, 5-year-old Axzavion has built a small collection of books through the Reach Out and Read program at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. His mother, Jamira Johnson, has fostered her son’s love for reading.
“I started reading to him when he was a baby,” she said. At an early age, he sometimes surprised her by reading the title of a book. “He’s very smart.”
Reach Out and Read is a national program that prepares children for school by developing language and early literacy skills from 6 months through 5 years old. Through a partnership with SSM Health Cardinal Glennon and its Danis Pediatric Center and other affiliated sites in the bi-state area, doctors and nurses “prescribe” new books at well-child visits and encourage families to read together.
The program is focused on low-income families (nearly 80% of participating families receive Medicaid or other government assistance) to address discrepancies in the home environment and with early stimulation, language and literacy skills.
The books also are used as a tool to evaluate the child’s development, said Katie Kleekamp, a registered nurse who coordinates the Reach Out and Read program at the Danis Pediatrics Tower Grove clinic.
“We leave the book out on the exam table or the countertop so that the physicians can interact during the assessment with the patient and see how on target kids are for developmental skills,” she said. Depending on the age, the physician uses the book to identify the child’s knowledge of colors, shapes, numbers and sight words, for example. Infants are assessed on their attentiveness. If additional developmental support is needed, healthcare providers will refer families to programs such as First Steps or other resources through Danis Pediatric Center’s CARES program.
By the time they enter kindergarten, children will have received at least 10 new books through the program to help start their home library. “A lot of our families are extremely appreciative of expanding their library and getting books they get to take home,” Kleekamp said. “I always tell parents, especially the ones who have car-seat age children, that they’re the perfect sized books for them to keep in the car. So while they’re rear-facing and have nothing else to do back there, they can flip through the book.”
SSM Health Cardinal Glennon began its partnership with the Reach Out and Read national program in 2005 and has grown to 52 affiliate sites in the area. More than 78,000 books were distributed in 2022, with a book distribution rate of 90% of total well-child visits. There are 34 Reach Out and Read sites in St. Louis City and St. Louis, Jefferson, Warren, Ste. Genevieve, Perry, Lincoln, Franklin and Cole counties in Missouri; and 16 sites in St. Clair, Madison and Monroe counties in Illinois.
National research from Reach Out and Read shows that through participation in the program, parents are four times more likely to read to their children. Children also show a six-month developmental edge over their peers in the preschool years and score higher on vocabulary tests and school readiness assessments.
“When these kids enter school, they’re often far behind their counterparts, and this is intended to help level that playing field,” said Gary Shipper, volunteer coordinator with the Reach Out and Read program at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. The national program states that more than 80% of a child’s brain is formed during their first three years, and what they experience during this window can irreversibly affect how their brain develops.
“A program like this contributes to improving the outcomes and makes it all worthwhile,” Shipper said.
Ashley Borawski, a nurse practitioner at Danis Pediatrics, said she will use a book to observe how a family interacts with each other. “It feels special to give them something, because you’re coming into a strange place, asking them a bunch of questions and you’re getting looked at and touched,” she said.
Kleekamp gets just as excited as the patients do when she picks out a new book and brings it to the exam room. She also enjoys reading to patients on occasion, especially when a parent is managing a sibling’s visit. “I have read to some when we have downtime, or it’s slow,” she said. “It’s an amazing tool for interaction with the families, and I feel like it helps gain some trust with them, too.”
Reach Out and Read
Read Out and Read is a national program endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. In Missouri and nearby areas of Illinois, affiliate sites average about 50,000 well-child visits annually and distribute more than 78,000 books. Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital is one of 37 affiliates across the United States.
Locally, the program is fully funded through SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation. SSM Health Cardinal Glennon pays the national Reach Out and Read office a fee to use the model and receive discounts on purchasing books, literacy and parenting resources and a database to analyze and track local outcomes. No funding is received from the national Reach Out and Read office.
To make a donation, visit www.glennon.org/what-we-do/reach-out-and-read/.