Raising Readers helps build baby brains with books

Liam and his grandma
Liam reads and snuggles with his grandmother.

Liam Liddell “loves, loves, loves to read,” said his grandmother, Sue Rose.
Rose has been reading with her blue-eyed grandson since he was born. The 3-year-old’s favorite books include the toe-tapping, handclapping “Pippa at the Parade” and “Where is Catkin,” a story about a mischievous cat that features animal sounds and hide and seek fun. Not only is this storytime creating a special bond between them, the rhythmic rhyming and silly sounds are helping Liam’s brain grow to support the trillions of connections between brain cells that will be formed by the time he starts school.
“A lot of people don’t realize you should be reading to your baby as soon as he or she comes home from the hospital,” said Cyndie Einan, who works for Family Health Services at the City-County Health Department. “Those first two to three years the brain is like a sponge. “
Einan is involved with Raising Readers, a group that works to get books into children’s hands through projects like Community Bookshelves, where children can take gently used books for free, and Summer Read 6, which delivers thousands of free books to children each summer.
Now Raising Readers is launching a project called Every Child a Reader, through which babies born in 2021 who will attend Great Falls schools will receive one book a month in the mail from birth to age 5. Thanks to support from United Way and the Great Falls Public Schools Foundation, about 200 babies born in the new year will have dozens of books – and a plump, healthy brain – by the time they start kindergarten.
“Every person wants the best for their child,” said Carol Paul, student services coordinator for Great Falls Public Schools. “Just having books in the home – books that parents read that their kids will enjoy – will have an impact on the child’s language skills, literacy skills and ability to read.”
“In the last few years, there has been this explosion of research on how much actually happens in a child’s brain from birth to age 5, specifically from birth to age 3,” said Deb Huestis, professional development specialist at Family Connections. “It happens in utero, too.”
Huestis said the neuron connections in babies’ brains are built through interactions – good and bad --with their parents and other caregivers, with billions of connections made by age 3. 
“Negative interactions cause a lot of stress,” she said. “The brain is still growing; it’s just not growing in the way we want it to. Through reading and positive interaction, we build healthy brains.”
Many things are happening when caregivers talk and read to their babies. They are learning vocabulary and language skills. The stories are promoting their imagination, empathy, problem solving skills and more.
“Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick. Even babies pick up on the rhyming and rhythm very quickly, and it promotes that brain development,” said Einan. “If you throw in a Looney Tunes voice and they are trying to figure it out, that promotes brain development as well.”
Einan and children’s librarian Rae McFadden are selecting the books the babies will receive through Every Child a Reader to make sure they are age appropriate and reflect the different cultures in our community. The books are chosen from an annual list put out by the national organization Ferst Readers, which since 1999 has been working to address the problem of children from low-income families entering kindergarten without basic literacy and school readiness.With Every Child a Reader, parents who have a baby in 2021 will be invited to sign up for the program. The funding provided by United Way and Great Falls Public Schools foundation will make it possible for 200 babies to receive books until they are 5. New parents also can choose to self-sponsor, which would make it possible for even more babies to benefit from the program.

“Ferst Readers has this video program that we will share with families about how to talk to your baby, how to respond to your baby and how to read to your baby,” said Paul. Once they complete the sessions, their child each month will receive a new book along with literature about how to read the book and information about local activities for kids at places like the public library.
The collection of books that Rose enjoys with her grandson are from a Ferst Readers subscription she received about a little over a year ago thanks to a Raising Readers fundraiser for the project. Subscriptions are still available for families who wish to sign up their child or people looking to give a special gift to a family.
“Anyone can sign up their own baby for $36 a year or $180 for every year until he or she turns 5,” said Paul, adding you also can sponsor a child as a baby shower gift. Those interested in signing up, sponsoring a child or donating to the program can contact Paul at carol_paul@gfps.k12.mt.us
Along with Every Child a Reader, families also can get free books from the Community Bookshelves at places like the SNAP and WIC offices, the Great Falls Housing Authority and Opportunities Inc. And you can always check out books from the Great Falls Public Library, which also offers Storytime for 2½ to 5-year-olds, fun crafts and more. Though in-library programming currently is not being offered because of COVID-19, you still can enjoy live stories on the library’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. 
McFadden said while the library works to make books available to families and children in the community, she knows having your own books means a lot.
“That why I think Every Child a Reader is so important,” she said. “It levels the playing field by making books available for kids ages 0 to 5 regardless of the family’s economic situation.”
And, like the others on the Raising Readers committee, she knows having books and reading in the home will make a difference when a child starts school.
“Read to your kids,” said McFadden. “It’s good for them. It’s good for you. It’s good for bonding. It’s good for their future. There’s nothing not to love about sharing a book.”  
Raising Readers is one of 34 local nonprofits programs that receive United Way grants from money raised in United Way’s fall fundraising campaign. Many people give through an employee campaign, which runs through the end of the year. People also may give by sending contributions directly to United Way at PO Box 1343, Great Falls, MT 59403 or donating online.