For the patients at Pediatric Plaza in Elmhurst, the chance to participate in United Hospital Fund’s early childhood literacy project couldn’t have come at a more critical time.
The project—which provided guidance, resource connections, and $7,500 in funding to integrate literacy into primary care practices—began just as Pediatric Plaza was assessing the aftermath of the pandemic. As it had for many families, particularly those who are lower income, the coronavirus crisis had undermined early literacy development for Pediatric Plaza’s youngest patients.
“It was very bad,” said pediatrician Coralys Vega, MD. “All those kids who were starting pre-K, kindergarten, or first grade were very, very behind.”
Dr. Vega knew that tackling the literacy gaps, plus helping patients born since the pandemic, would take more than Pediatric Plaza’s existing practice of giving out free books when resources allowed.
Now armed with the funding to do so, Dr. Vega decided to focus on educating and empowering parents to make practicing literacy skills a regular part of playtime with their children.
“When United Hospital Fund came on board, it was a way for me to have the resources to not only give the book, but to teach the parents,” Dr. Vega said. “I had the staff, the time, and the money to have story times, play times, and really make early literacy available for the kids.”
Known as a two-generation approach, literacy activities that involve the whole family have been shown to produce better outcomes not only for children’s reading skills and confidence, but those of the parents and caregivers as well. This is particularly true among immigrant or structurally marginalized communities, like those Pediatric Plaza serves, who may have limited adult literacy or English proficiency.
At Pediatric Plaza, Dr. Vega implemented this approach by holding literacy events on the weekends. Each session, which was separated based on age group, would include age-appropriate books, educational games or puzzles, and staff available to help parents learn ways to develop early literacy skills with their kids.
“We discovered that we can play and we can learn at the same time,” Dr. Vega said. Parents were then encouraged to continue the skills at home with free books given out at the events. Pediatric Plaza held six literacy events throughout the year-long project, each of which was attended by an average of 20 families.
The results have been noticeable. Dr. Vega said she has not only seen improved reading skills among her patients, but an increased enthusiasm in parents to get involved.
“They say, ‘When are you going to do another [event]? It really changed our approach,’” Dr. Vega said. “They know this is helping their kids.”
That impact at Pediatric Plaza will last after the year-long United Hospital Fund project, too.
Dr. Vega notes that, thanks to the UHF funding, a small bookshelf in the waiting room was transformed into a fully stocked reading area with enough books on hand to replenish the library as patients take books home.
The clinic is also exploring adding a box for books outside its offices so families can stop by to hand in or take books even when the facility is closed.
The literacy events will also continue. Dr. Vega is currently searching for a venue that can accommodate hundreds of families for an all-ages literacy event this summer when volunteers from local colleges can help with staffing. She also hopes to start a book club for the clinic’s teenage patients.
“It doesn’t matter the age—reading is key for everyone,” she said.
UHF’s inaugural literacy project, “Pediatric Steps to Literacy, One Book at a Time,” included partnerships with four pediatric primary care practices serving neighborhoods with high rates of families experiencing homelessness, medically underserved immigrant families, and low or inadequate literacy rates. The project, supported by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, recently received funding to run another year in 2023.