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READING / The world of literacy, language and literature.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

At a downtown clinic serving mostly poor immigrants, the waiting room is a volunteer-staffed reading room, and books come with the prescriptions.


In one corner of the bustling Pediatric Family Medical Clinic, located in the shadow of downtown office buildings on South Olive Street, a video plays but no one watches. Nearby, a play area goes practically unused.

But around the bend in the clinic's waiting area is the real action magnet: the reading corner.

From her perch on a white rocking chair, 74-year-old Leonila Hynsson is reading a children's alphabet book to a flock of enthralled youngsters sprawled around her on beanbag chairs. Across the rug, Jesus Sabado, 77, sits on a bench with Brian Parada, 7, and the two take turns reading pages of "Boomer Goes to School."

Eduardo Vidal--fully 9 years old--believes he is too big for both activities, so he pulls up his own beanbag and reads to himself. "It's cool to read so you can learn," said Eduardo, whose parents speak mostly Spanish at home.

The scene is typical of what happens here every weekday, eight hours a day, thanks to an innovative reading program that combines three community outreach efforts aimed at boosting literacy among the clinic's largely low-income, immigrant patients.

One program encourages the doctors to emphasize the importance of reading. Another program brings in volunteers to read to the children. And the third helps parents who can't read learn to do so.

It all starts with the kids.

"We felt that while children were waiting to see the doctor, we were missing an opportunity to help them even more," said Stephanie Taylor-Dinwiddie, who started the reading program.

A Good Idea Mushrooms

A year ago, Taylor-Dinwiddie contacted Reach Out and Read, located at Boston Medical Center. Begun in 1989 by doctors there, the program blends early literacy training with pediatric care. It has mushroomed: 623 medical centers in 47 states have signed on to the concept, which is backed by a nonprofit center, said spokeswoman Helen Roberson.

Because the Los Angeles clinic serves a needy population, it qualified to become part of the Reach Out and Read network, which is supported by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations. The Boston-based group sent $1,000 in seed money and vouchers for 1,000 books to launch the waiting area reading corner.

At the heart of the program are the physicians, authority figures who reinforce the message about reading during patient visits.

Doctors give each child, from infancy to age 5, an age-appropriate book. And for the parents, they write prescriptions urging them to read to their children daily.

Though the prescription seems a little corny at first, most parents take home the message that reading--even to the youngest--matters. The program hands out about 125 books a week, and when children turn 5 they get a dictionary.

"The reading program makes the visits a lot more pleasant for the kids," said Margaret Hwang, a clinic pediatrician. "The kids come in asking for the books now. And I'm happy to put in the extra time talking to them about reading."

The clinic has added another dimension to the literacy effort by linking it with two other community organizations: the Foster Grandparent Program and the Central Adult High School.

The alliance with Foster Grandparent helps Taylor-Dinwiddie meet the challenge of finding enough volunteers to read to the children eight hours a day.

The clinic has tapped Foster Grandparent for six people; volunteers cover morning and afternoon shifts. Hynsson and Sabado, who both emigrated from the Philippines, volunteer five mornings a week.

Sabado, whose wife, Magdalena, 78, also volunteers to read at the clinic, said he does it to help children get a better start in life.

"Most of the children here don't have the best English," he said. "The business world is much kinder to those who can read and write in English. I want to help these kids so they can grow and become professionals."

Adults Also Learn to Read English

Meanwhile, the clinic's alliance with the Central Adult High School helps with yet another problem that has emerged from the literacy push: the reading ability of the parents, who doctors discovered needed help.

"Many are embarrassed to admit that they can't read to their children in English, and sometimes not even in their own language," said Julietta Perez-Cruz, who manages the clinic's reading program, among others. "There's such a stigma. We assure them that many others are in the same situation and that there's no shame in learning."

Located just across the street, the Central Adult High School offers free classes in English as a second language. Since last summer, the clinic has referred 90 parents to the high school.

"Sometimes we even walk them over, if we think they need that extra push," Taylor-Dinwiddie said.

Central High School counselor Archie Bobis said that because the school has a rolling enrollment, people can start right away.

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