Sophie Aguilar gripped the shiny pink cardboard book, opened the cover and then stuck a corner of it in her mouth. It seemed “What Do I Hear?” tasted as good as it looked.
Chuckling, Maria Campos gently removed the book from her daughter’s mouth and began turning the pages as Maribel Luna Sanchez spoke with her about the book.
Sanchez is a community health worker with PASOS, a state-wide organization that assists the Latino community and area service providers in working together for strong, healthy families. She works with the Connections for Childhood Development program in the Chelsea Clinic at Ruth P. Field Medical Center in Okatie.
The new book is part of “Reach Out and Read,” a non-profit program that combines books with pediatric care and asks families to read together. Every toddler, up to 5 years old, who is brought into the clinic for a wellness exam, receives a book after meeting with the doctor. The books are bilingual and are paid for under a grant from The Boeing Company.
“When we hand parents the books, we tell them this is prescribed by the doctor,” said Sanchez. She tells the parents about how important reading is, how to pick out books appropriate for the age of their child, where the library is and how to apply for a library card, and what kind of reading activities are available around the community.
“We also talk about reading together as a family goal,” Sanchez added. She schedules literacy workshops at both the Hardeeville and Bluffton libraries,
including Spanish literacy workshops over the past summer. She encourages families to make more use of the libraries in their community. When there is a language barrier – usually one in which the child can read English but the parents do not – she tells them that there is more to books than reading the words, such as looking at the illustrations and talking about them.
Sophia was fascinated by the colorful pictures in her new book; her mother said the child enjoys “reading.”
“I read to her all the time and she does listen,” Campos said, adding that she regularly buys books for their home library.
“In our [Latino] culture, we really don’t use the library,” said Sanchez. She grew up in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, a small town far from a local library. Books were not a large part of her childhood, she said, but her cousin grew up in Mexico City where there were many libraries to use.
When Sanchez speaks with the families at the clinic – not just Latinos – it’s an opportunity to change the way people think about libraries.
“Most people think of it as a serious place to be quiet,” said Sanchez, who has a bachelor of science degree in Human Services from the University of South Carolina Beaufort. “When I tell them about all of the resources available – reading hours, internet, book clubs, family activities – it’s eye-opening for them.”
She said a good percentage of her clinic families now use the public library although not everyone can get there because of transportation issues or jobs that overlap library hours. That leads to creativity.
“A bunch of these families have set up their own little library,” Sanchez said. “They buy their own books and exchange them.”
Sanchez schedules follow-up appointments for the families and with every wellness check, the children leave with another new book, as well as encouraging reading activities for both the parents and older children.
“A good percentage of my families are now using their libraries,” Sanchez said.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.