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Columbia Business Monthly

A Prescription to Read

Sep 11, 2019 09:35AM ● By Leigh Savage
Thanks to a public-private partnership, Reach Out and Read Carolinas has served more than 165,000 children in the Palmetto State, giving them a stronger start in school by enlisting the help of the medical community and paving the way for a better-educated workforce. 

Founded in 1989 in Boston, Reach Out and Read has 30 years of data to back up its initiatives and shows major ROI for something seemingly simple: Doctors trained by the group send families home with a book after each visit and give them a “prescription to read” every day. 

“Doctors have this opportunity to touch families through the well visit,” says Callee Boulware, executive director of Reach Out and Read Carolinas. “It’s a profound opportunity to reach kids and their families in the early years.”

The organization has more than 20 participating clinics in Richland and Lexington counties and dozens more statewide. 

About five years ago, Reach out and Read received its first investment from the state when the General Assembly allocated $1 million. The organization matches state funding with a one-to-one match in private dollars “so the government isn’t the only one at the table,” Boulware says. “Private investors are at the table and think it’s a worthy investment. Corporate partners are at the table investing in early childhood.”

Partners include BlueChoice HealthPlan, Boeing and Prisma Health.

Because parents might bring a child to a doctor up to 15 times between birth and age 5, there are multiple opportunities for Reach Out and Read to impact children and parents. The participating doctors have a literacy-rich environment, and the first thing the doctor does is give the child an age-appropriate book. 

“Reach Out and Read trains doctors to have this conversation with families,” Boulware says. They talk about how to use books in day-to-day life, and how they can become helpful parts of routines. Parents are taught how rapidly their child’s brain is developing and the importance of verbal interaction. It’s one part of an overall well visit, and after each one, the family takes the book home, creating a home library over the years. 

While many of the benefits of the program aren’t visible right away, long-term data shows that early exposure to books and sharing that with caregivers builds literacy, critical thinking, problem solving and executive functioning skills. Boulware and her team talk to corporate partners about how these skills help build a better workforce. “It all starts in early childhood,” she says. 

Independent, peer-reviewed research shows that families served by Reach Out and Read are 2.5 times more likely to read to their children and the child’s language development improves by 3-6 months. Brain imaging shows that reading with a parent or caregiver increases development of regions of the brain associated with higher thinking processes. Eighty percent of brain growth happens by age 3, Boulware says. 

Research also shows participant families are more likely to attend child wellness checkups, have fewer instances of maternal depression and create bonds that reduce stress and build resilience in children. 

While doctors have a lot on their plates, “they wait in line” to be a part of this, Boulware says. “They tell me this is why they got into medicine in the first place—providing something meaningful and real.” 

For employers, she says no investment is more powerful than an investment in young children. “I encourage them to think about what kind of employees they want over the next 15-20 years,” she says. “That investment in early brain development is an investment in the future of the workforce.”
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