BEMIDJI -- Pediatricians are now offering prescriptions to read during routine checkups at the Sanford Bemidji Children’s Clinic.

The Bemidji clinic is the latest location to incorporate the Reach Out and Read program at its pediatric center. The program, started in Boston in 1989, is operated by a national organization with more than 6,000 sites, serving 4.7 million children and their families each year.

"It was based on the understanding that literacy is extremely important starting at an early age," said Dr. Colleen Swank, Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota Clinics vice president. "At every checkup from six months old to five years, the provider at the clinic gives a book to each child. It's not just giving the book, though, it's also discussing with the parents the importance of reading."

According to Swank, the program was something she discovered in her work as a pediatrician and after bringing it forward, Reach Out and Read was worked into Sanford's Healthy Kids Initiative.

“When our Community Needs Assessment identified at-risk youth and low income families, we started a local overarching strategy to address opportunities called the Sanford Health Kids Initiative,” said Bryan Nermoe, president for Sanford Health in Bemidji, in a release announcing the program.

Nermoe likened the reading program to how Sanford Health partnered with the Bemidji School District and the United Way to fully fund the Backpack Buddies Program, which provides snacks and food items to children who may not always have access to nutritious meals. He called the Reach Out and Read program “another step to improve the health of the communities we serve.”

Swank said it’s important for children to develop a love of reading and books in their first five years.

"It is a critical window of brain development that doesn't happen at any other time,” she said. “We know children who hear fewer words in early childhood are developmentally behind their peers when school starts.

“By having this it increases children's language skills."

Swank said the books for the program are bought by Sanford. As part of the program, though, she said Sanford is also conducting some book drives to receive gently used books for older children who come to the clinic.

"We wanted this here because we know there are higher poverty levels and there may be some children that don't have access to books or the library," Swank said. "By participating in this program from birth, they'll get books and it may encourage more families to seek out a library, too."

For more information about Reach Out and Read at Sanford, contact Amy Fjerstad at (218) 333-5756; or if you would like to volunteer as a reader, contact Kari at (218) 333-5654.