Pediatrician helps foster the love of books in patients, their parents

Nonprofit sees early reading as a prescription for success

Terri McFadden grew up with a mother who loved reading so much that she would curl up in the back of the car on late-night family road trips with a book and a flashlight.

And her mother wanted her daughter to share her joy.

“From the time that I could sit up, she had a book in my hands,” said McFadden, a longtime Atlanta pediatrician.

For the past 25 years, McFadden has been modeling her mother, who was a librarian for a middle school, by trying to instill a passion for reading in her patients and their parents.

She is a founding member and the unpaid medical director of the Georgia affiliate of Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit that uses well-child doctors’ visits to promote early reading aloud and to foster a positive parent-child relationship.

Trusted pediatricians, including McFadden, convey to parents that early literacy is critical to the development of children, ages newborn to 5. Since 2000, they’ve handed out 2.7 million free books to children and parents in low-income areas. Eventually, they’d like to expand the program to every child in the state.

“I really feel like it is making such a difference in the lives of children and families,” said McFadden, past president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It is the love of my life other than my husband.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Last year, national Reach Out and Read’s 35,000 pediatricians, family physicians, and nurse practitioners gave out 4.1 million books, said Marty Martinez, the program’s chief executive officer.

“We couldn’t be who we are without the generosity and real passion of our providers,” Martinez said. “We survive because they are so passionate about not only integrating that early literacy component but, as Dr. McFadden talks about, also creating moments that matter for the children and their parents.”

Multiple studies have found that this program can change a child’s academic and life trajectories and foster positive parent-child relationships that can last a lifetime, said Amy Erickson, executive director of the Georgia program. She said that children exposed to books through Reach Out and Read often start kindergarten with a six-month heads-up.

The earlier that exposure is, the better, Erickson said, noting that the Georgia program recently trained 100 doctors who work in hospitals’ neonatal intensive care units to help.

“We have to start at birth helping parents to be their child’s first and most important teacher,” she said.

Erickson said McFadden is known around the state “as the godmother of Georgia’s children” because of her dedication to the program.

McFadden pushed to create the Georgia program about 25 years ago. A colleague had learned about the national effort at a conference, came home, and told McFadden about it. Since then, McFadden has given out thousands of books to children and their families in her private practice and has trained hundreds of pediatric residents in the program’s fundamentals as a professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Initially, some of her fellow pediatricians needed some convincing before signing up for the program.

“Pediatricians are told that the education lane is not our lane,” McFadden said. “We had grown accustomed to thinking that developmental milestones, such as speech and motor skills, were within our lanes. Why we didn’t think that early literacy was in our lane, I don’t know.”

But it made perfect sense for pediatricians to become involved since they are typically the first and only early childhood professionals who come in contact with these children and their families before kindergarten, she said.

McFadden tells parents that children need and thrive with a routine. She suggests a nighttime ritual of the four Bs: bath, brush teeth, book and bed.

Jessica Tyler was a young patient of McFadden’s years ago and remembers the books she and her three brothers received.

“The most fun part was you were able to choose which book you liked,” Tyler, 34, said.

Now a stay-at-home mom, Tyler takes her seven children to McFadden for pediatric care and those coveted free books.

“I really appreciate Dr. McFadden. She is a great physician,” Tyler said. “I wouldn’t change from her for the world.”

Before dinner each Saturday, Tyler calls her children – ages three to 15 – together to read a story aloud.

“I still love to read,” Tyler said.


MORE DETAILS

Reach Out and Read started in 1989 at the Boston Medical Center (formerly the Boston City Hospital). McFadden and child psychologist Ann Hazzard launched the first Reach Out and Read program in Georgia 25 years ago at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding, where McFadden has her private practice.

HOW TO HELP

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, the Georgia chapter has set a goal of raising money to buy 352,433 books this year. Make a tax-deductible gift today at www.reachoutandread.org/georgia and click on the Donate Now button. Contact Amy Erickson, executive director, at amy.erickson@reachoutandread.org to learn how a company or foundation can partner or volunteer. Follow the chapter on social media; On Instagram @reachoutandandredgeorgia Twitter @ReachOutReadGA, and Facebook @reachoutandreadgeorgia.