Getting a head start
Dr. Michael Maharry, medical director at UI Health Care in Muscatine, reads a Cinderella book to his daughter, Sabrina, 3. The book is one of about 100 donated to the Muscatine facility by Iowa Public Television and the Reach Out and Read Iowa coalition. In addition to the books, the groups donated a flatscreen TV and a DVD player as part of the Raising Readers Learning Center delivered Tuesday. Mike Ferguson

MUSCATINE, Iowa - Dr. Michael Maharry knows a good diagnostic tool when he sees one, and over the lunch hour Tuesday, he saw a whole shelf full.

Maharry, medical director at Muscatine's UI Health Care at 3465 Mulberry Ave., was in the lobby with his three-year-old daughter, Sabrina, when officials with Iowa Public Television and the Reach Out and Read Iowa coalition delivered a new Raising Readers Learning Center to town.

The 100 or so children's books, a flatscreen television and DVD player are designed to raise children's literacy skills while they wait to see a doctor.

To date, two dozen centers have been delivered throughout Iowa, said Tammy Lorch, IPTV's ready to learn specialist.

Each is valued at about $1,000.

Reading a book is a good pastime for children waiting to see a doctor, but having so many developmentally appropriate books in the lobby is a good thing for physicians as well, Maharry said.

Reading with a young child "is a good way (for a doctor) to assess development," including fine motor and communication skills, said Maharry, who practices family medicine. He labeled Tuesday's donation "fantastic" because "the more literate the child, the healthier the child."

The television screen and DVD player are included in each learning center, Lorch said, to give children access to high-quality children's programming, including three of her favorites from IPTV: "Super Why!," "Word World" and "Martha Speaks," a show about a dog that learns to speak after ingesting some alphabet soup.

"We've been to all sized communities all over the state," Lorch said, especially in communities with good-sized low-income populations. "It's been wonderful partnering with an existing program."

That would be the Reach Out and Read Iowa coalition. Debra Salowitz, chairwoman of the group's Iowa advisory committee, said that as state and local education budgets are pinched, getting books in children's hands is as important now as it ever was.

Being read to certainly builds a child's vocabulary: a child who's read to between the ages of 0-5 has heard 3 million more words by the time he or she begins kindergarten than a child who's not read to, she said.

Reach Out and Read began in 1989 when a pair of Boston pediatricians noticed that children's books were exiting their waiting room in surprising numbers.

The doctors weren't angry: they knew children were filching books because they weren't readily available at home.

Today, more than 28,000 doctors, nurse practitioners and other health professionals participate in Reach Out and Read. In Iowa, about 52,000 children are served annually, having received more than 80,000 free books.

Salowitz said she doesn't expect the 100 or so books delivered Tuesday to stay forever in the UI Health Care waiting room.

That's where Muscatine residents and businesses can help, she said: gently-used children's books for readers up to 5 years old are always welcome.

"When they're ready to start school, kids who are read to are head and shoulders above their contemporaries" who haven't been able to enjoy the simple pleasure of being read to, she said.

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