Libraries, Hospitals Join Forces to Promote Wellness

An outreach program eases children's anxiety and kindles their interest in books

March 22, 2010

Waiting is never easy for a child. For a child in a hospital, though, it’s really a tough go. The looming surgery, the unfamiliar setting, even just the break in routine all pile on anxiety and make minutes seem like hours. Now many libraries are partnering with hospitals to help ease that anxiety as well as to hook these young captives on reading. The strategy sometimes offers a way to reach new patrons in literacy-challenged communities.

D. J. Leonhardt helped forged one such partnership recently in Waukegan, Illinois. A literacy advocate, Leonhardt lobbies for her cause from two fronts: as board member of Waukegan Public Library (WPL) and as an active member of the local Rotary Club, an organization dedicated to promoting literacy. She sees the school statistics, and they’re startling: The last Illinois District Report Card showed 31% of all kids enrolled in Waukegan public schools are “limited English-proficient.” Over 70% are Hispanic and fall into the low-income category.

“Books provide such a phenomenal breadth of entertainment and knowledge,” said Leonhardt. “It occurred to me that one way to reach families is through children entering the hospital.” She and a fellow Rotarian, WPL Executive Director Richard Lee, came up with a program called Gift of Reading. Funded by the Rotary Club, it provides a new, usually hardbound book to any patient age 18 and under entering the local hospital, Vista Medical Center.

Wedging those costs into the Rotary budget requires some ingenuity. Collection management staff at the library negotiate special pricing: Their first shipment of more than a thousand books came in at only $1.95 each. Rotarians deliver the books and the library maintains the collection at the hospital. Then each child’s nurse chooses a book that best fits the patient’s age and interests, and presents it to the child.

“We are honored to have our pediatric patients receive books from the Waukegan Public Library and the Waukegan Rotary Club throughout 2010,” said Barbara J. Martin, Vista Health System president and CEO. “Reading is fundamental for children to explore and grow.” To top that off, it’s a potent stress-reducer: New research shows just six minutes of reading can lower stress levels by more than two-thirds. That makes a visit to the hospital an opportune time to kindle a child’s interest in books.

To keep that interest fanned after patients leave the hospital, the ¬library equips each book with a WPL bookmark and a letter promoting the library’s Early Learning Center and Literacy Suite, where visitors can sign up for free adult basic education and family literacy classes. Like many of the books provided, the letter offers its message in English and Spanish, reflecting the largely Latino makeup of the area.

“We call our program Gift of Reading not only because we’re giving away books, but because reading in itself is a gift—a lifetime gift,” said Lee. “We hope, once these kids leave the hospital, they’ll have a new reason to visit the library.”

Now, he and Leonhardt are working to expand the program to provide a collection of free, new or gently used books in English and Spanish for the hospital waiting room. The collection will include adult and children’s books, and like the patient books, each will come stamped with a bookplate naming the literacy partners, and include the WPL letter and bookmark.

Gift of Reading isn’t a groundbreaking program. Hospitals and libraries nationwide have partnered on similar projects, such as the Children’s Literacy Program at the Children’s Hospital in Central California, Reach Out and Read at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, and Read to Me at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island. While not new, these partnerships are especially critical in high-need, low-resource areas like Waukegan, where one book can spark a lifetime difference; and outreach may be the only way to deliver it.

ELLYN RUHLMANN is public relations coordinator at Waukegan (Ill.) Public Library


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