Linking early literacy and health: Lakeshore healthcare collaborative expands in Kent County


Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit that champions the positive effects of reading daily and engaging in other language-rich activities with young children. As a national program, it seeks to provide a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together. Reach Out and Read’s West Michigan affiliate, Ready for School, recently announced plans to expand this healthcare collaborative in Kent County with the help of funds awarded through Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage funding.

Ready for School is a Holland-based charitable organization whose mission is to prepare children for success in kindergarten by equipping parents and families through the integrated support of its surrounding communities. As one of 16 community-based organizations recently awarded funds through the new round of millage funding, Ready for School is expanding its early literacy advocacy efforts to Kent County by focusing on provider recruitment and training to improve access to Reach Out and Read’s program and resources – with an initial goal of doubling the percentage of children currently receiving intervention.

“Of the approximate 44,000 children 0-5 years old in Kent County, only 7,000 (16%) are currently receiving Reach Out and Read intervention across 12 clinical sites,” says Ready for School’s president and CEO, Donna Lowry. Provider recruitment goals proposed by Ready for School and supported by millage funds, “will provide the opportunity for approximately 6,000 more children and families to receive the cost-efficient, evidence-based pediatric healthcare provider early literacy strategy,” Lowry says.

Kent County voters approved the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage on November 6, 2018, and on January 23, 2020, First Steps Kent announced $7.6 million in awards to 23 separate programs centered around early childhood development with a strategic focus on families with the greatest needs. Funding for these programs is expected to begin in March 2020.

Reach Out and Read promotes literacy as part of a child’s pediatric primary care visit. The program trains medical providers to provide children with a new, developmentally appropriate book at each well-child visit; where pediatricians and nurse practitioners also encourage parents to read aloud to their children and offer age-appropriate tips and modeling. While the program gives special consideration for underserved populations, it also gives consideration to the individual needs of those who make up these communities and ensures books are thoughtfully curated to align with lived experiences.

“Books are chosen to be developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate,” says Lowry. “Over the last 30 years, Reach Out and Read has partnered with national and local experts to procure a recommended book list of over 1,400 titles. We offer books in 26 different languages and some books are bi-lingual,” Lowry says. The list of languages includes, but isn’t limited to Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi, Somali, Thai, Khmer and Russian. Also, Lowry adds, “Books reflect multicultural settings and different abilities. This diversity equips healthcare providers with books that reflect the demographics of the patients and families they serve.”

Because the program is premised on encouraging families to read aloud together as part of their daily routine, a common question arises: what if the parent or caregiver is illiterate? Is there help for them, so that they can read to their children?” The answer, Lowry says, is yes.

“For parents or caregivers who may struggle themselves with language and literacy barriers, the book becomes a tool that is more about modeling connection and experience than it is about reading,” she says. “Talking about the pictures and turning pages together is a source of empowerment that builds brains and bonding.” As they enjoy books and time spent together, Lowry adds, “families form lasting connections and children learn new skills.”

Donna L.B. Lowry, MD is a clinician in healthcare, health education, and community mobilization strategies. She is president and CEO of Ready for School and works to support and enhance public health systems that make the most vulnerable citizens an assumed priority in health, education, community life, and policy. Ready for School is expanding its Reach Out and Read healthcare collaborative in Kent County with the help of funds awarded through a new round of millage funding.

To learn more about Ready for School and Reach Out and Read’s expansion in Kent County, visit

Photo courtesy Ready for School

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