Asil Greer may be only 7 years old, but he’s already started writing his second book. It’s called “All Day I Dream About Books,” and, indeed, this enthusiastic reader does. His first book, I Can Read, So I Can Lead, was self-published to rave reviews: Asil’s classmates loved it.
“They said it was really awesome,” the West Oak Lane second grader said.
Asil’s biggest fan — his mom, Kwaminah Greer — has been reading to him since before he was born. But Greer gives much of the credit for her young author’s love of the written word to Reach Out and Read, a program at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children that has given books to Asil and kids like him at well visits from birth and beyond.
“I say it should be implemented in all the hospitals,” said Greer, 51, a victim-services advocate. “It helps significantly. Look at Asil. He’s the proof. My son is an avid reader because of that program.”
Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit serving 4.5 million children at over 6,000 health-care sites, has been helping to nurture the love of reading at St. Chris for the past two decades.
“It’s probably one of the most important programs we can use as pediatricians,” said Hans Kersten, one of St. Chris’ lead doctors in the program. “It’s shown it can improve language in children and early school readiness skills, and it’s one of the only programs that starts at birth. It doesn’t wait until they’re having problems in school.”
For the past eight years, St. Chris has hosted an annual basketball tournament — the biggest single fund-raiser for the program — which supplies books to children from birth to 5 years old at their routine checkups. The tournament has also allowed St. Chris to expand its book-giving to older kids and teens. In addition, Reach Out and Read serves patients, such as those with HIV or complex medical needs, and babies born prematurely. The last tournament, in October 2019, was its biggest ever, raising over $100,000.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, canceling the basketball tournament that had been planned for last October. Kersten and Dan Taylor, the St. Chris pediatricians who organized the prior tournaments, needed to find another way to raise money to support the program.
The answer: a partnership between St. Chris and Harriett’s Bookshop, a North Philadelphia book store named after the abolitionist and emancipator Harriet Tubman. The alliance has turned out to be a blessing for Harriett’s and St. Chris. And the key to its success has been the books themselves.
Harriett’s had been open only about a month when the pandemic forced it to close. The store is the dream of owner Jeannine Cook, an educator, who filled its shelves with a rich variety of books by authors of color. She envisioned the shop as a community meeting place where people could gather to discuss ideas, even disagree, peacefully.
But before long, she was sending books back to their publishers, and holding sidewalk sales for what she couldn’t return.
“I was convinced that we weren’t going to survive,” Cook said.
One day in the spring, Dan Taylor happened upon one of Harriett’s sidewalk sales and told Cook about Reach Out and Read. Despite her shop’s precarious financial situation, Cook was moved to help.
“Right there on the spot, we gave Dr. Dan as many children’s books as he could walk away with,” Cook said. They parted with vague plans of working together. A few months later, when it became clear that the basketball fund-raiser would need to be canceled, folks from Harriett’s and St. Chris met to brainstorm ways to support Reach Out and Read in lieu of the hoops event.
What they come up with was a natural: a virtual reading tournament.
Harriett’s staff reached out to 14 children’s book authors — some from the Philly area — who provided videos of themselves reading one of their books. Cook then posted the videos to the shop’s website, whose visitors can vote for their favorite, make a donation to Reach Out and Read, or opt to order books from Harriett’s and have them sent directly to St. Chris.
The selections include books like Black is a Rainbow Colorby Angela Joy; Hair Like Mine by Latashia M. Perry; A is for Activistby Innosanto Nagara; and Don’t Read the Comments a Young Adult book by Philadelphia writer Eric Smith.
The tournament organizers hope the fund-raiser, which launched last fall, will attract business contributors the way that the basketball events did in prior years. The tournament will continue through the end of this year (a winner will be announced at a future event).
In the meantime, it’s not only helping St. Chris’ program but also helping support Harriett’s, which has been able to reopen as a walk-in shop.
“It’s a win-win,” said Taylor.
But the bottom line is what supporting Reach Out and Read does for the children.
“Every dollar helps, every book helps. Every book gives hope,” Taylor said. “Every book is our message — we’re not giving up on our children from this community. We see them, and we believe they can be successful and healthy. Every child deserves that hope.”
The books St. Chris’ patients receive through the program tell the stories of children who look like many of them — Black, Latinx, and Asian. There are books in over 15 languages. In some of the books, readers meet characters who share their life experiences — having same-sex parents, incarcerated loved ones, parents divorcing, grief, illness, dealing with their own gender identity.
In 2019, 30,000 books were given to St. Chris patients. In 2020, despite the pandemic, over 20,000 books were given out. Reach Out and Read has become basic part of the hospital’s culture, the doctors said.
“At St. Christopher’s, I can’t fathom going into a room with a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old without a book in my hand,” Taylor said. “It’s a disservice. You feel incomplete as a pediatrician.”
Greer said her son Asil’s St. Chris pediatrician, Jeremiah Goldstein, has been giving him books since his earliest well-baby visits. In fact, that’s where Asil got some of his main must-reads: Green Eggs and Ham, for one, and I Love My Mommy, which he asked for at every bedtime.
Some kids might fuss at the idea of going to the doctor, said Greer, but not her son. As he told her, “They always give me a book when I’m there.”