Clinics Give Kids a Dose of Reading

Times Staff Writer

Instead of a lollipop or a balloon, young patients who come in for a checkup at some Southland clinics get something much more valuable: a new book to call their own.

The Northeast Valley Health Corp. has embraced a nationwide program called Reach Out and Read at four of its five clinics in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.

As part of the program, children are given an age-appropriate book after each of the 10 "well-child" exams that are scheduled between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. Doctors and nurses talk to parents about the lifelong impact reading can have on children, even if they are too young to understand all the words.

"I love it and the kids generally love it," said Dr. Gina Johnson, a pediatrician at the nonprofit organization's San Fernando clinic. "For families that don't have many books or haven't exposed their children to reading, I can demonstrate to them in 30 seconds what they can do with a book."

Reading to infants can help them develop necessary listening and speaking skills, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Preschool-age children who have stories read to them have a chance to explore new ideas. And children who become good readers are more likely to do well in school.

"Reading to children is one of the key factors in getting kids ready to read," said Rena Shpegel, grants and contracts administrator for the Northeast Valley Health Corp., which provides care for low-income patients at clinics in Canoga Park, Pacoima, San Fernando, Van Nuys and Valencia. All locations except Pacoima are participating in the Reach Out and Read program.

Reach Out and Read began in 1989 as a collaboration between pediatricians and early-childhood educators at Boston City Hospital, now called Boston Medical Center. They concluded that pediatricians and nurses are a highly trusted source of guidance and therefore could be influential in encouraging parents to read to their kids.

The program has since blossomed to more than 1,800 locations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam, serving 1.7 million children annually.

With more than 200 programs in California, Reach Out and Read plans to expand into a number of clinics in the Los Angeles area in the coming year, program officials said.

Although reading to a child seems like a simple activity, getting people to follow through can sometimes prove challenging.

"Often, people in poverty have less resources and don't know where the resources are," said Shpegel. "And there are some parents who can't read themselves. They want to do the best for their children but don't know what to do to make them literate."

In July, the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign gave the Northeast Valley Health Corp. $10,000, enough to buy 4,000 books from Scholastic Inc. In turn, the nonprofit organization wrote a proposal for a matching-funds grant from Reach Out and Read.



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