Sun Life helped march child patients into literacy this month

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By Lindsey Gemme/Special Contributor

Casa Grande– Did you know that 759 million adults, or 16 percent of the world’s population, have only basic or below basic literacy levels?
March has been named “March Into Literacy Month”, targeting America’s youth and adults alike. Over 21 million Americans can’t read at all, and 45 million are marginally illiterate (eighth-grade level, or lower). That’s nearly half of the American adult population who can’t perform simple tasks like balancing a checkbook or filling out a job application, or even reading materials provided to them by their doctor.
But pediatricians with Sun Life Family Health Center’s Center for Children in Casa Grande and their Reach Out and Read Arizona Program partners are working hard to turn those numbers around at a local level.
And they’re doing it by starting with their youngest patients.
Reach Out and Read Arizona is a program (under the American Academy of Pediatrics Arizona Chapter) that supplies books to area doctors, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals. Those books are then given to children between the ages of 6 months to 5 years when they come in for pediatric well-child checkups. Reach Out and Read has books for children in more than 14 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish.
“It’s a very wonderful program,” said Dr. Maria Abad with Sun Life. Abad has been involved in the program for 15 years. She first heard of it while at her first pediatric group practice in New Mexico. When she came to Sun Life in 2009, she was happy to discover she could continue her participation with the nonprofit organization’s own Reach Out & Read program.
“Through this program, we are able to provide books to our pediatric patients who come for their well baby and child visits between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.  This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce to the parents the importance of reading to their children,” Abad said.
Many children don’t ever see books in the home or are exposed to reading, and that has long lasting negative effects on a child’s reading skills. Statistics provided by www.readfaster. com explain that over $2 billion a year is spent on students repeating a grade due to reading issues. Since 1983, over 10 million American teens reached their senior year unable to read even at a basic level. One-fifth of American high school graduates can’t even read the words on their diplomas.
In the same period, more than 6 million Americans dropped out of high school altogether. Children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are three to four times more likely to drop out in later years. And approximately 50 percent of the nation’s unemployed youth aged 16-21 are functional illiterate, with virtually no prospects of obtaining good jobs.
According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37 percent of fourth-graders and 26 percent of eighth-graders cannot read at the basic level; results of the 2002 NAEP assessment revealed that 26 percent of twelfth-graders cannot read at the basic level. In other words, they cannot understand what they have read.
But statistics show that even just 15 minutes a day of reading on their own outside of class can expose a child to over a million words within a year. And a student simply having resources available to them at home, including books, magazines, newspapers and the internet, have proven to elevate their test scores over their classmates who have fewer materials. Even Reach Out & Read children have generally scored higher than their classmates on tests for vocabulary and school readiness.
“For the children, I think owning their own brand new book could help foster a love of reading,” Dr. Abad commented. “An added bonus of the program is that, hopefully in our children’s minds, well-child visits are not just associated with getting ‘shots.’ But they also get a the gift of a book.”
The Reach Out & Read Arizona program serves more than 4 million children and their families across the nation, with a special emphasis on serving those in low-income communities. The program has 197 active clinics in the state of Arizona that hand out books, which is the largest amount of clinics in the history of the organization, and service an estimated 119,000 children. In Pinal County alone, there are currently 13 active sites including Sun Life that participate in Reach Out and Read, with almost 19,000 children that are seen for well-child visits each year. That equates to $52,250 in books put in the hands of area youth each year, said Program Manager Sharon Brady.
But Pinal County lost its First Things First funding in 2010 despite the growing participation and need, added Brady, to bankroll the program. Even with the financial cutback, many of the area doctors have taken it upon themselves to keep the program going.
“We have doctors buying their own books, and they’re struggling to pay for it,” Brady explained. “And we do everything we can to help. So, we’ve got amazing doctors participating in this program. They’re our biggest champions.”
Recently a generous donation was made to the organization through the TW Lewis Foundation, which Brady immediately funneled into the unfunded areas of Pinal. On Feb. 22, Sun Life’s Dr. Abad accepted a delivery of 400 books at the Center for Children. All the Center staff are eager to distribute the books to their young patients this month.
Families served by Reach Out and Read Arizona sit down to read together more often, and their children enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills, better prepared to achieve their potential in school and beyond.
For more information on Sun Life’s Reach Out & Read program, contact Sun Life’s Director of Community Outreach Renee Louzon-Benn by phone at (520) 381-0366 and by email, or contact Sharon Brady with Reach Out & Read at (602) 532-0137 ext. 407 and at

Sun Life Family Health Center is Pinal County’s largest primary care provider, and was one of the first community health centers in the state to have received accreditation from the Joint Commission (the gold standard of quality in healthcare). Sun Life serves both insured and uninsured Pinal County patients, and provides health services in family practice, dentistry, women’s health, pediatrics, diabetes education, and much more.
Sun Life has several area family practice offices, located in Casa Grande, Eloy, Coolidge, Maricopa, Oracle and San Manuel. The Casa Grande general health facility (located on N. Arizola Road) houses management operations, as well as family dentistry and orthodontics, and provides in-house radiology, pharmacy and laboratory services. The Centers for Women & Children on Florence Boulevard in Casa Grande offers women’s wellness and maternity care, as well as pediatric care. The San Manuel Family Practice also offers in-house laboratory, radiology, diabetes education, and pharmacy services. Our Eloy location offers family practice and a public pharmacy. San Manuel, Coolidge, Maricopa, and Oracle are all family practice locations.
To learn more about office locations and hours, Sun Life…Excellence in Health Care.

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