Reading to children is fundamental to their growth and intellectual development. And the younger a child is exposed to words and books, the more likely they are to foster strong, lifelong reading habits. Unfortunately, not all parents are equipped with the resources to provide strong reading foundations for their kids.

Since 1989, an organization called Reach Out and Read has promoted “literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud.” Since then, they have reached nearly 4 million families – and growing.

Former Reach Out and Read staffer, and current board of directors member and volunteer, Martha Gershun, took the time to talk to Repair the World about why reading to kids in doctor’s waiting rooms works, the best techniques for reading to very young children, and finding her own sweet spot in the world of service.

Tell me about your background with service work.
It’s something I have come to over time. Like many Jews in our generation, my parents were active volunteers and involved in activist causes, so it was always a part of my consciousness. But early in my career, I focused professionally on the corporate world and working my way up the managerial ladder. My volunteerism was spot service – going on a Thursday night to make sandwiches for a shelter or joining Habitat for Humanity for an afternoon to build a house.

In my thirties I joined the board of our synagogue. That was my first board service – and I eventually became treasurer. What I learned was that I was interested in long term volunteerism, but that I didn’t want to do it through my synagogue. It was hard for me to go pray when I knew how much a recent air conditioning repair cost, or after negotiating the salary for my spiritual leader. So I went looking for a volunteer opportunity that would help underserved communities.

What inspired you to get involved with Reach out and Read?
The National Medical Director, Perri Klass, was my freshman roommate in college. After graduating she went to medical school and I went to business school. One day she called me and said, “Do you know how to read a balance sheet and an income statement?” And I said, “Yes, that’s one of the things you learn in business school!” She asked me to join the board – they didn’t have anyone on the board outside of the east coast or with a financial analyst background.

So I joined the national board from Kansas City, and joined the board of a local affiliate program – we’re in all 50 states. I chaired the finance committee for a long time, and then ROAR was awarded a large federal grant that required them to grow really fast in a short amount of time. At that point, the Chairman of the Board called me and asked if I could take on a consultant role to help them grow. I said yes, and it worked out great! Near the end of my time as a consultant, the organization had grown enough to need someone full time, so I joined the staff and was there for several years. So my involvement with ROAR has really run the gamut.

What makes Reach out and Read’s approach unique from other child literacy programs
What Reach out and Read’s founders – who are both physicians – figured out is that pediatricians see low income kids and their parents with more regularity and consistency than any other professional. Doctors are perceived as trustworthy – their main job is to make your kids well and safe. And in many states, in order for low income families to access the WIC program, they have to keep their kids current on immunization. That’s an important lever in the system which brings low income families into the pediatrician on a regular basis. They might not be able to send their kids to summer camp, or have time to spend the day reading with them at the library, but they’ll make a doctor’s appointment.

They also realized that a child’s health is more than the physical body, it’s about brain development. As Perri says, “Up to the 4th grade, children learn to read and after that they read to learn. If you can’t read, you can’t learn – it’s the portal to everything. Through research the founders saw that young children’s brains and ability to absorb vocabulary develop with use. If a young child is not exposed to a variety of words in the first two years of life, their brain pathways do not develop in the same way. So the founders said, “How can we get parents to use more words when they talk to their children? How do you bring words like that into a kid’s life?” Books became the means to an expanded vocabulary world.

Reach out and Read gives books to children as part of the program, right?
There’s a lot of research out there that says children improve their ability to succeed if you give them free books and advice to parents on how to read out loud to and with their kids. You get more than a double wallop if you do both. The idea that, “It’s a book, read it” is sometimes less intuitive than we might think – you need to provide instruction on how to do that well. Things like switching up vocal intonation or asking kids questions about the book; that skipping a few pages is okay, or that you don’t have to read to your kids in English for the brain development to take place. Reach out and Read distributes books in over 20 languages.

Reach out and Read also has extraordinary purchasing power – we’re one of the largest purchasers of books in the country. We have a contract with Scholastic and the ability to do bulk buys or have print runs done just for the organization at generously reduced prices. Scholastic is one of the most generous corporations I know of.

Can you talk a bit about how volunteers get involved?
Volunteers work out in the waiting room and help to model reading behavior. As a volunteer you sit with a pile of books, a red apron and a bunch of kids around you. Mom gets a break and meanwhile learns more about good reading behavior.

Can you share a story that demonstrates some of the impact you’ve seen – on kids and on parents?
We hear over and over from parents that it’s hard being poor. You’re busy all the time, you often have to depend on unreliable public transportation or go without childcare. They say that Reach out and Read gives them the opportunity to read with their kids before bed, and put back some quiet, loving time with their kids into their lives. By making it something a doctor prescribes, it becomes mandatory.

There was a mother who got her daughter immunized at a clinic that hosts Reach out and Read. It was the first time anyone had given her child a book, and she was captivated. She was not very literate herself, but the program inspired her to get literacy coaching. She ended up going to junior college and becoming a physicians assistant at the same clinic! Now she gets to give books to other kids.

Do you connect the work you do with your sense of Jewish identity/heritage?
It’s all infused. You can’t be involved with Reach Out and Read without seeing the Jewish influence. We’re talking about books and doctors after all! For me, it is the culmination of the type of service I was looking for all my life. My Jewish values of education and of helping others – particularly kids who were born into poverty through no fault of their own – are fully realized through their mission.

How can volunteers sign up?
People can find affiliate sites in their area on Reach out and Read’s website. Many sites have volunteers who are in high school and all the way up. Some sites need volunteers to help collect or sort books for their waiting rooms. My daughter used some of her bat mitzvah gift money to buy books. So whatever people want to do to help, they can be funneled in.