Prepare for Success: Read Aloud

In a bustling waiting room, Daria, a young mother, finds a space, pulls a rug from her bag and lays it on the floor. She gathers together a group of young children, sits them down around her, pulls out a brightly colored book, and begins to read to them.

What is remarkable about this scene is that just a few months ago, Daria, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic with basic English and rudimentary reading skills, was reluctant to read to her own young son, let alone to a group of children surrounded by a crowd of parents.

Fortunately, she has been given help with reading aloud through the Reach Out and Read program at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Daria’s doctor has explained to her, and thousands of other new parents, that cuddling and reading to infants, toddlers and preschoolers is one of the best ways of helping them achieve their full potential.

It is widely accepted that reading aloud to young children is the single most effective activity that will prepare them for success at school. At a time when the achievement gap is wider than ever, and when more than a third of American children start school without the skills necessary for learning, it is disheartening that less than half of the families in the U.S. read together every day. This is often because parents do not understand its importance or because they do not have the confidence to read aloud.


This is where Reach Out and Read makes a difference. More than 21,000 Reach Out and Read medical providers nationwide talk with parents at each pediatric checkup from infancy through five years about the benefits of reading aloud to their children. More importantly, they model how to engage young children with books at each developmental stage.

Claudia Aristy, Reach Out and Read Program Director at Bellevue tells me, “Many of the parents we serve did not grow up with books in the house and so are not comfortable reading aloud. We give them the confidence to read together with their family – And for parents who do not read well, we explain that the most important part of reading aloud is connecting with their children. We show them how to talk about the pictures and create the stories with their own words.

It’s so wonderful to see the transformation from a parent who says, ‘I can’t do this, I’m stupid!’ to one who can enjoy the bonds created through shared time together and who knows that they are giving their child a chance for success at school.”

There are many families who do not have the resources for books at home, and so each child in the Reach Out and Read program takes home a new “doctor-recommended” children’s book. In many cases this is the first book that a family has ever owned and our doctors tell us how the children’s eyes light up at this gift. For those parents whose first language is not English, we offer books in different languages.

Room to Read

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized the important role that pediatric providers play in encouraging parents and caregivers to read aloud to their children and the program has one of the strongest records of research support of any primary care intervention. Parents who have participated in the Reach Out and Read program are four times more likely to read to their children and include more children’s books in their home, and children served by the program are three to six months ahead of their non-Reach Out and Read peers on vocabulary tests.

Aristy tells me that the impact of the Reach Out and Read program is clear. In a community where the percentage of pupils graduating from high school is typically low, she sees the children that participated in Reach Out and Read growing up and going on to college.

On February 24th, Reach Out and Read will be joining a global celebration on World Read Aloud Day.  Bellevue is just one of more than 5,500 Reach Out and Read medical clinics across the U.S. that serve 4.5 million children each year. We are asking all those who believe in the value of reading aloud to young children to take part in our campaign and help more parents like Daria give their children a chance for success. Daria says,

“Reach Out and Read has helped me to give my son a chance to do well at school – I’m so proud to be able to do that for him.”

HELP: It sounds like a miracle, but it isn’t

Elice Oreste grew up in a remote, mountainous region of Haiti called Labiche. When he was born, Labiche had no roads, no utilities and no schools. Few in his community, including his parents, had ever been to school. Luckily for Elice, a local resident who had been educated, came back to the area and started a primary school. The first year, it had one room, the second year, two rooms, and so on. Elice’s mother said that since she had never spent a single day in school, when Elice started school she could only give him a pencil, a notebook and a prayer.

Elice lived with his parents and four siblings in a two room house; they got by on the revenues from his parents small plot of land but things were always tight in Labiche so people made do with what they had. Elice developed an early interest in music, and at the age of 12 he built his first guitar from scrap wood.

Luckily for Elice, just as he graduated at the top of his class in primary school, the government built the region’s first-ever secondary school in neighboring Grigri. However, it was a two hour walk from his house, each way. Elice did that walk every school day for five years and still finished high school with a straight-A average.

New Star

But university was out of the question. Not only had no one in Labiche ever been to university, Elice’s family could barely afford to pay for the seven hour bus ride to the capital, let alone books or housing or tuition. So he apprenticed himself to a local carpenter at a monthly salary of $50. Elice’s life was pretty much set. He would apprentice at the same salary until he was ready to go out on his own and maybe end up making $200 a month.

One day HELP (Haitian Education & Leadership Program)  showed up at the high school in Gris Gris, offering university scholarships for straight-A students. The Principal said he didn’t have any that year but he told them about Elice who had just graduated the year prior, and we left an application. Thankfully, Elice got the application and that September he began an industrial engineering degree at Haiti’s oldest private university. At school he was consistently on the Dean’s List and when he graduated in 2014, he secured a summer internship with an energy company in Green Bay, Wisconsin. On his return to Haiti Elice found a job as junior maintenance engineer at the local Heineken brewery at a starting salary of $18,000 a year – 30 times what he had made as an apprentice.

ORESTE Elice (2)

Despite his success, Elice remains attached to his humble roots and committed to improving his hometown. He returns often to Labiche where he has transformed a musical group he started with some friends into a educational and charitable group which awards prizes for the top local students and distributes food to the most needy, who Elice describes as “those that haven’t eaten in two or three days.”

When Elice talks about his story he says, “It sounds like a miracle, but it isn’t. It’s real. And we are only just beginning. We are going to change Labiche, and we are going to change Haiti.”

Call to Action!

We are losing more than 30 scholarships from institutional funders this year. Despite a record 291 straight-A applicants, we can only admit 20 freshmen next month, our smallest class in five years. It will also be the first time in HELP’s history that student enrollment will shrink from one year to the next. With 160 students, HELP is still strong but we would like to be stronger to provide opportunity to an increasing number of students.

Help make a difference by donating and sharing this blog with your friends and family!


About the Blogger:

Conor Bohan, HELP Founder & Executive Director, lived and worked in Haiti from 1996 to 2008. Under his leadership, HELP has grown from a single student to the largest university scholarship program in Haiti. In addition to growing HELP, he was a volunteer teacher, Deputy Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Haiti, and Director of Haiti Programs for the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Conor has a B.A. in History from Brown University and was named one of the Hemisphere’s Innovators by Americas Quarterly Magazine and is a recent Ashoka Fellow.

What’s the Surprising Reason for Penina’s Absences from School?

What can cause a girl to miss up to 50 days of school per year?

Believe it or not, it’s because of something so small that most of us never think about it: a menstrual pad. When we met Penina, a secondary student in Rwanda, she explained that, “I can’t go to school when I don’t have pads. This causes me to miss school, which is something important to my future.”

Penina is not alone: the impact of menstruation on girls and their participation in school is significant. Half of the 500 girls and women we surveyed are missing school due to menstruation. The main reason given is that sanitary pads are too expensive. For women, 24% miss work–up to 45 days per year–for the same reason. In Rwanda, like many places in Africa, a package of pads costs more than an average day’s wages of $1.50 per day.

This is also a global issue. UNICEF estimates that 1 in 10 African girls do not attend school during menstruation. Schoolgirls in Ghana and India reported that they miss school each month because of menstruation. Girls can miss up to 50 days per year because they lack access to affordable menstrual pads when they menstruate.

Those days missed can adversely affect girls’ learning potential later on in life too. Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) estimates that a lack of affordable menstrual pads costs the GDP $115 million per year in Rwanda alone.

Health and Hygiene Advocacy | Schools | Students 3_low-res

Lack of access to affordable pads is only part of the problem, we also learned that girls learn little to nothing about puberty and menstruation. Girls also lack access to clean and private toilets, soap, and clean water while menstruating at school. As a result, girls feel ashamed and embarrassed while menstruating and the cycle of shame continues.

At SHE, we believe in investment over charity: That’s why our first initiative, SHE 28, gets right to the heart of our mission.

Here’s how it works:

Banana farmers in Rwanda throw away tons of fiber every year. We provide them with equipment and training, so that they can process it and sell it to us.

We take it to our pad factory in Rwanda, where our 12 entrepreneurial staff cut it, card it, wash it, fluff it and solar dry it.

Ngoma Production Site | Factory | Collage 2

Then the banana fiber is ready to be made into menstrual pads. Our pads, which we also refer to as the LaunchPad, contain none of the chemicals found in standard commercial pads.

For this reason, our LaunchPads are at an affordable price-point to schools and given to girls who need them.

Education, health, jobs, sustainability – we think it’s straight up common sense.

Because when we get right down to it, the idea that a girl would miss school because she has her period is complete nonsense.

If that’s not ok with you either, think about joining our #smallthings campaign. Become a SHE Champion and lend your voice. Let the world know that investing in a small thing like a menstrual pad can make big changes for girls. Don’t be late, PERIOD.


About the blogger:

Connie Lewin is Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships at Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). Connect with SHE on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and at