Getting Tri-City kids to read is just what the doctor ordered

Aryanna Vargas, 4, describes the action in a Curious George book to Dr. Saul Valencia at Pasco’s Tri-Cities Community Health branch.
Aryanna Vargas, 4, describes the action in a Curious George book to Dr. Saul Valencia at Pasco’s Tri-Cities Community Health branch. Tri-City Herald

For about 10 minutes, Aryanna Vargas sat quietly with her Curious George book.

Then Dr. Saul Valencia walked in and began asking questions about the book.

“Can you tell me what he’s doing in this picture?” he asked, pointing to a man making a phone call. “Who do you think he’s calling? Do you think he’s calling his mom, his dad, a friend?”

Aryanna began laughing and filling in the pieces of the story.

As they finished with the story, Valencia said, “That’s exactly how it works in the room.”

Vargas is one of several hundred children benefiting from the Reach Out and Read program at Tri-Cities Community Health. The nationwide initiative to give books to children started nearly 30 years ago in Boston.

A combination of pediatricians and early childhood educators created the program in 1989, and it spread across the country. Participating health care providers distribute nearly 7 million books per year to children up to 5 years old.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognized the model, which serves one out of four children living in poverty in the country, the organization said.

At the Pasco-based health care clinic, the distribution efforts are led by nurse practitioner Joshua Hughes, along with Valencia and Dr. Maria Guevara. They are distributing books to parents during the 10 well-child visits kids get before they start school.

Clinic officials plan to distribute 1,500 to 2,000 books from the clinic’s Pasco office by the end of the year.

Medical professionals provide parents with books and help show them how to read with their children. Valencia said for younger children, he advises parents to ask what the people are doing in the picture.

When the child is older, Valencia tells parents to let the child fill in the story using the pictures.

“They’ll start telling you the story and a lot of times the story is close to what is in the book,” he said.

Along with teaching children to read, it gives parents, grandparents or other guardians a chance to bond with kids.

“When my kids were small, all I had to do was grab a book ... and they ran up to me and sat on my lap,” Valencia said. “Even when the parents don’t know how to read, you don’t have to read to them, just look at the books and tell the child what’s going on in the pictures. ... It’s the bonding that matters.”

Many of the parents of Valencia’s patients are surprised when he offers their child a book. Parents are used to hearing about their child’s physical health, but aren’t expecting to learn about their child’s mental well-being.

“Especially in the lower economic status groups ... most of these people don’t even have books in their homes,” he said.

He encourages families to borrow books from public libraries to give their child a chance to learn about reading.

It’s important to Valencia to provide more than medical advice for families under his care, he said.

“As physicians, we always focus a lot on their health, but we also have to focus on their well-being, their growth and development,” he said. “So I get satisfaction knowing that I’m helping a child learn and to become better educated.”

Cameron Probert: 509-582-1402, @cameroncprobert