Through Reach Out and Read's Military Initiative, doctors and nurses at 20 military hospitals, including one in Germany, will soon receive training on how to promote early literacy for children, and free books to be handed out to parents with young children - ages 6 months through 5 years - when visiting well-baby or well-child clinics.

Air Force 1st Lt. Alice L. Shepard, a nurse in the Clinical Nurse Pediatric Subspecialty at Travis Air Force Base in California, and mother of an 8-month-old child couldn't be happier.

"This is great. I love to read and hope to instill a love of reading. Even before he was born we read to him and some of the first things I bought when making his nursery were books."

According to Barbara Christine, Program Manager for Library Programs at the Army Family and MWR Command (FMWRC), the "Reach Out and Read" program is a pilot project on pediatric early literacy among children of members of the armed forces.

State coalition groups will visit these hospitals to instruct doctors on how to counsel parents about the benefits of reading to their children. The books provided in the Reach Out and Read program were selected by the Library Program at FMWRC, and Congress provided initial funding to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to start the pilot.

"Literacy is promoted by incorporating reading aloud, advice to parents, and books into the well-child visits at military hospitals and health clinics. The contract for the project was awarded to SRI (Strategic Resources, Inc.) by the Pentagon's Contracting Center for Excellence (CCE)," said Christine.

SRI is the lead contractor who subcontracted the project to Reach Out and Read (ROR), a national, nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy by making books a routine part of pediatric care.

In 1989, ROR was founded at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center) through collaboration between pediatricians, family physicians, nurses, and early childhood educators.

"Nurtured by the passionate and inspired efforts of many educators, doctors, volunteers, parents, corporations, foundations and politicians, ROR has grown significantly from merely providing books in pediatric waiting rooms," said ROR Co-founder Robert Needlman, MD.

This growth includes the training of doctors and nurses at Military Treatment Facilities on the ROR model where they learn how to select an age-appropriate book for each child to take home from every checkup, starting with board books for babies followed by more complex picture books for preschoolers.

Air Force Capt. Minh-Thu Le, a medical doctor at Travis, not only went through the training during her civilian residency, she also was trained by a pediatrician through the ROR office.

"Our trainer, who lives in the area, shared many experiences of the program from the "real world." This was a great time for discussion with those of us who were familiar with the program from other civilian clinics where we previously worked. Because ROR already researched the age-appropriateness of each book, our training was more about what interaction with a book is developmentally appropriate for each age group," Le said.

Along with the free book for every child, military healthcare providers will also provide advice and tips to the parents about reading aloud with their children. Each child who participates in ROR will start kindergarten with a home library of up to seven books, and support of parents who understand the importance of reading.

"Also important would be the chance to have the doctor sign and date the book. That way, we could look back and remember the different mile stones of our son's development and who was there to share in those times," Shepard said.

Military bases participating in Reach Out and Read will also create literacy-rich waiting rooms, complete with child-size furniture and bookcases, where ROR-trained volunteers will model reading with the children while their families wait for appointments.

"The Reach Out and Read model is a proven success," said U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI).

Reed, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, last year authored and introduced the Prescribe a Book Act, which created a federal pediatric early literacy grant initiative based on the ROR program.

"Reading aloud to a young child every day is a wonderful way to stimulate language," said Perri Klass, MD, Medical Director of Reach Out and Read.

"It helps children love books and reading because they associate books with the parent's voice and with the pleasures of listening. That's the advice military doctors and nurses will be giving to the parents of their young patients at every checkup - important advice for all parents to help their children learn language and enjoy books."

Reading aloud can help children feel secure and loved, and help families cope with stressful times, especially military families who face separation and deployment, said Klass.

"I also encourage parents to try and not dictate how a child interacts with a book. Not every child will sit still for you to be able to read a book cover to cover. A six-month old will be more interested in mouthing the book, which is appropriate. A 12-month old may flip each page quickly before you can even tell them what is on the page. Let the child dictate how you read to them," Le said.

This is also a good time to foster a life-long relationship with doctors and hospitals.

"Kids love books and usually hate going to the doctor's office. Hopefully, this program will enable them to associate coming here as a fun outing, as well as having the book remind them and their parents the importance of getting their well visits done," Le said.

In addition to Reach Out and Read's wide selection of "doctor-recommended" children's books, children served by Reach Out and Read in the Military will also receive books designed specifically to calm anxieties about deployment and military service, such as "While You Were Away," by Eileen Spinelli.

"I am scheduled to deploy next year. I read Spinelli's book and found it very touching and brought tears to my eyes because it was so accurate. As a mother of a very young child, I worry that he will not remember who I am when I return. I think this book could give him a sense of what I am doing over there," Shepard said.

Reach Out and Read in the Military will be serving more than 90,000 children, ages six months through five years, worldwide.