Turning the page
Innovative program helps children excel in the next chapter of life
The conversation in the car ride home is a familiar one for Kimberly and Randall Velasquez. Their three-year-old son, Blake, received a book at his annual checkup, and while he can already recite his colors and numbers with pride, he doesn’t yet know how to read by himself. He turns to his older sisters—McKenzie, Adriana, and Serenity—for help.
"I always tell my younger kids that we have to wait until we get home to read,” Kimberly says. “But they are so excited about the books that they beg their older siblings to read aloud in the car.”
The books that the Velasquez family receive are part of Reach Out and Read, an innovative program that sets children up for success by encouraging reading during routine pediatric wellness visits. The Reach Out and Read Texas affiliate, part of the Children’s Learning Institute at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, serves 200,000 children annually through 200 programs across the state.
"Books have enormous power to encourage early brain development and help families build strong connections,” says Jocelyn McConnell, MEd, who leads Reach Out and Read Texas. “It’s all about the cuddle time and the interactions that happen when families read together.”
As part of the Children’s Learning Institute, Reach Out and Read Texas helps advance a central mission to improve learning and health outcomes for all children. The institute’s programming and evidence-based interventions build on decades of scientific research to ensure that children of all ages and abilities are equipped to learn and excel.
"The kids love the books they get at the doctor’s office,” Randall says. “They get fun pop-up books that teach them about emotions and other important topics, and they don’t even realize they are learning.”
Reach Out and Read Texas works with local clinics and pediatricians across the state to provide books to children up to five years old. The program offers age-appropriate books in 17 languages to ensure that children from all backgrounds can engage in reading.
"Many people in Texas grow up speaking Spanish, so we provide books in the language that families know best,” McConnell says. “Growing brains learn the most when they are exposed to full, rich vocabularies.”
Parents who receive books from Reach Out and Read are 2.5 times more likely to read aloud to their children, and the children typically gain three to six months of vocabulary compared to their peers. The books are also important for pediatric providers who can use them to help evaluate developmental milestones and connect with parents about their child’s growth. Sevahn A. Carril, MD, the Velasquez family’s pediatrician, incorporates the books in her appointments at UT Physicians Multispecialty Clinic in Rosenberg.
“Dr. Carril is the best. Anytime I call her, she is there for us when we need her,” Kimberly says. “It’s a real lifesaver with the kids.”
For the Velasquez family, reading is just one of many activities they do together. With three kids already in school, the family spends summers on the Texas Gulf Coast and looks forward to quieter moments in the evenings spent with books.
“Reading is definitely a family tradition,” Randall says. “My grandmother read to me when I was young, and now I get to pass that on. My older kids have reading assignments that we do for school, and we practice sight words every night.”
"Even though Blake is still little, he loves when we read to him,” Kimberly says. “He wants to be involved in everything, and he gets so excited that he sometimes tears the pages when he tries to help turn them.”
Many other families across the state lack the resources to provide books for their children. Over 50% of the families who receive books through Reach Out and Read Texas live below the poverty line. Philanthropic commitments throughout the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign from donors like CenterPoint Energy; Gulf Coast Medical Foundation; The Clayton Fund, Inc.; and The PNC Foundation—as well as the community members who supported a crowdfunding campaign and Giving Day—help ensure that books are available in doctor’s offices across the state.
"Giving a child a book seems like such a simple thing, but it can make such a lasting impact on entire families,” says McConnell. “Philanthropy plays a vital role in our efforts by providing books and ensuring we have the staff and resources to reach even more communities in Texas.”