Books from Birth of Middle Tennessee aims to instill a love of reading in local children, one book at a time.
by Kara Furlong
photography by John Russell
If you’re reading this, chances are an appreciation for the written word was planted in you long ago, perhaps even shortly after your birth.
If, in fact, a parent, family member or other adult read to you as a child, you owe them a big “thank you.” According to the Commission on Reading, the single most important thing one can do to ensure that a child becomes a good reader – and gets a leg up in school – is to read aloud to him or her from an early age.
A program run by the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt wants to give this advantage to all Middle Tennessee children by providing them with free books for the first five years of their lives.
Books from Birth of Middle Tennessee, which houses a chapter of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, has served families in Davidson, Williamson and Sumner counties since 2005. In 2002, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen teamed with Parton to extend her highly successful literacy program from Parton’s native Sevier County to all counties across the state. Davidson and Williamson signed on in 2005, followed by Sumner in 2006.
The concept is simple: Parents enroll their child in the program and he or she receives a new hardcover storybook in the mail each month at no cost.
“All we need for enrollment is the child’s name, birthday, mailing address and a parent’s signature,” said Sheryl Rogers, director of Books from Birth of Middle Tennessee. All children from birth up to age 5 are eligible for the program, regardless of family income. And parents of multiple young children may enroll each child.
“We have people tell us, ‘We feel guilty. We can afford books. We’re taking them away from somebody who really needs them,’” Rogers said. “But our response is, ‘No, you’re not.’ The program is open to all children in Middle Tennessee and across the state.” The Dollywood Foundation secures cut-rate prices for the books, and the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation picks up half the tab for the cost of books and mailing. Individual program chapters raise the other half through personal and corporate donations.
The first book every child receives is The Little Engine That Could. It comes with a letter from Parton printed in the front, along with tips for reading to a child. Different age-appropriate books follow each month up to the child’s fifth birthday, when the final “graduation” volume is a book about kindergarten. Nearly a dozen titles are printed in both English and Spanish and may help children in Spanish-speaking households – and in some cases, their parents – improve their English skills.
The program is a big hit with Chris Baltz’s daughter, Victoria, who turned 2 last October.
“She loves getting her book each month. When we get a book in the mail, we have to stop everything else so we can open the package and read it right away,” he said. “Victoria even has a special place on her bookshelf where she keeps her books. The only downside is that for the next week, she wants there to be another book in the mail each day.”
Baltz, associate director for advancement communications at Vanderbilt, and his wife Jill, director of information management in Development and Alumni Relations, have had to remedy this with trips to the bookstore between Imagination Library deliveries. But they’re thrilled their daughter is showing a keen interest in reading at such an early age. “This is a wonderful program. We can see her vocabulary growing with each addition to her library,” Chris Baltz said.
If the literacy effort is essentially a state-sponsored program, how did Vanderbilt become involved?
“Throughout the state, programs in individual counties are basically volunteer-run,” Rogers explained. “With Davidson, Williamson and Sumner counties potentially comprising such a large group, Gov. Bredesen and the Children’s Hospital’s then-CEO Jim Schmerling agreed that the program for Middle Tennessee should be run on a more permanent, organized basis.” Rogers and activities coordinator Linda Wylie assume this duty full-time for the Children’s Hospital.
Currently, some 30,000 of an eligible 63,000 Middle Tennessee children are enrolled – about 46 percent. “That’s great, but we’re still missing every other child,” Rogers said. “So our outreach and awareness efforts are very important.”
In addition, Books from Birth of Middle Tennessee’s Imagination Library fits nicely with the Children’s Hospital’s other literacy programs, not to mention its overall mission within the community.
Jo’s Reach Out and Read, founded by Vanderbilt pediatrician Rebecca Swan and her husband Michael in memory of their daughter, brings volunteers into waiting rooms at the Children’s Hospital to read to young patients as they wait to see their physicians. The patients have the opportunity to sign up for the Imagination Library, while the doctors give them a free book from the program and “prescribe” that their parents read to them for a minimum of 15 minutes each day.
“The Children’s Hospital is all about healing the sick, but at the same time, it’s about prevention,” Rogers said. “A literate child is a healthy child, because that child will grow up to be a literate adult. They’ll get a better job, have access to better health care, and have all sorts of advantages they maybe wouldn’t if they couldn’t complete their education due to deficient reading skills.”
There’s ample evidence to back up this theory.
“Studies have shown that if a child has been read to on a regular basis, they will enter kindergarten with a listening vocabulary of about 20,000 words. If they haven’t been read to, it’s more like 3,000,” Rogers said.
Thirty-four percent of Davidson County preschoolers – a third of those entering kindergarten – simply won’t be prepared. “We’ve talked with preschool and kindergarten teachers around the state through the governor’s foundation, and they informally say to us, ‘We can tell which kids have been a part of your program. They know the books, they know how to hold a book, and they’re familiar with the stories,’” Rogers said.
That advantage – or lack thereof – has a distinct ripple effect. In Tennessee, 41 percent of fourth graders read below grade level. And research suggests that if a child is behind when they enter the fourth grade, it’s nearly impossible for him or her to catch up.
“In the blink of an eye, these children will be graduating high school, going off to college or entering the work force,” Rogers said. “We need this upcoming generation of workers to be as educated as it can be. The future of our state depends on it.”
But that’s not the only reason to encourage childhood literacy.
“Reading to children strengthens the family bond,” Rogers said. “If you pick up a book and show it to your child, what do they do? They immediately climb in your lap. They want to be read to – they want to be close to you. Reading with your children is the perfect way to spend time with them.”
With this in mind, the Children’s Hospital launched a third literacy initiative last April. The Family Literacy Project will encourage early childhood and adult literacy by sending representatives from various community organizations into Middle Tennessee homes and child care centers to train adults in how to effectively read to their children.
“These representatives will tell them why reading is important, show them a short video, and provide them with books – especially Imagination Library books – so they can practice what they’ve learned,” Rogers said. “The idea is for both the parents and the children to get something out of it in terms of literacy. Hopefully, we’ll make them into book-loving households.”
Altogether, the three literacy programs under the Books From Birth of Middle Tennessee umbrella will operate to the tune of $1.1 million – all in grants and donated funds – over the next fiscal year.
Books from Birth of Middle Tennessee turns to its team of around 70 dedicated volunteers to help keep the program running smoothly. Volunteers distribute brochures and man registration tables at shopping centers and public events. They make calls to the community and raise funds. They even pick up undeliverable books at post offices and phone individual households in order to update the mailing database. Hundreds of undeliverable books end up being donated to community and child care centers and religious organizations.
“We want to get the books back out there where they can do some good,” Rogers said.
For a program steeped in simple concepts, it’s the little things that add up.
“For a little more than $13, we can send a child a book a month for an entire year,” Rogers said. “For many people, that’s the cost of lunch.
“And for only a few minutes a day, reading these books with your child can open up their whole world.”
To learn more about Books from Birth of Middle Tennessee, visit www.vanderbiltchildrens.com/booksfrombirth. To enroll a child in the Imagination Library, visit www.imaginationlibrary.com.