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Nonprofit promoting early literacy seeks children's books

Reach Out and Read donates books to doctor's offices and clinics to help boost the literacy rate among needy children.

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Reading with kids
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit promoting early literacy, has been in North Carolina for a number of years. As part of the program, doctors, during an appointment, give a book to needy kids who might not have many at home. They also stress to parents the importance of reading to young children.

About 85 hospitals, health centers and pediatricians offices in North Carolina participate in the program. Twelve of them are in the Triangle, including clinics at Duke Medicine, WakeMed and UNC Healthcare.

Now the nonprofit hopes to expand its reach in the state. About a month ago, the group launched a North Carolina chapter.

Carolyn Merrifield, the program's regional programs director, said her goal is to work with the doctors who already are involved in the program and make sure they have what they need. She also hopes to encourage local groups, such as moms groups or schools, to start up book drives to help support the program.

The 21-year-old nonprofit, which runs in all 50 states and a few other countries, has mostly grown from word of mouth in the state.

"It's still a grassroots movement," Merrifield told me. "We are definitely growing."

The group works with families in primarily low-income areas such as rural and urban settings. Many of the families can barely afford shelter, food and clothes, Merrifield said.

The group targets kids ages 6 months to five years. A goal is to get them ready for school.

According to the group, about 34 percent of American children enter kindergarten without the basic language skills they will need to learn to read. And 88 percent of first graders who are below grade level in reading will continue to read below grade level in fourth grade.

As part of Reach Out and Read, doctors typically give the kids a new book before an exam begins. The group also works to stock waiting rooms with books - new and used - so kids can read while they wait. In some cases, volunteers read stories out loud to kids waiting for their exam to start.

Studies have found that the program has helped. According to the group, parents served by Reach Out and Read are up to four times more likely to read aloud to their children. Children show significant developmental gains in language and a six-month developmental edge over their peers in the preschool years.

While many parents read parenting magazines and books, check online resources and seek out other advice from friends and family when they have questions about raising their kids, Merrifield said that for many of the families, the doctor is their only source for parenting information.

"If the doctor is saying read to your kids and it’s really important, they’ll listen," she said.

Scholastic, among other companies, donates books to the group. But Merrifield hopes local groups will help out too. If you're interested, check the Reach Out and Read website for more information.

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