UNICEF estimates that an average of 353,000 babies are born every day around the world, and an estimated 264 million children aren’t getting an education. What if each of those babies were given a library card and access to his or her local library’s resources right from day one? St. Louis County Library is making that a reality in the metro area with its Born to Read program.
As the library expanded its efforts to reach as many children and families as possible, it created a new program in 2015: Born to Read. Library director Kristen Sorth says this program was implemented to reach families “at the earliest possible moment” – and what could be earlier than the moment a new family member enters the world?
“We want to convey the importance of reading and introduce reading into the daily routine at the beginning of a child’s life,” Sorth says. “That’s why we came up with the idea to reach parents at the very first moment they have with their newborn in the hospital.”
The Born to Read program ensures that every baby born in St. Louis County receives a library card. New parents at participating hospitals receive a bag that contains a book, early literacy information, a library card, a Cardinals beanie and a voucher for two Cardinals tickets, along with other items.
The program started with just a few hospitals but has grown to include Mercy Hospital South, SSM DePaul Health Center, St. Clare Health Center, Missouri Baptist Medical Center, SSM St. Mary’s Health Center, St. Luke’s and – most recently – Mercy Hospital St. Louis, which was added in January.
“We know hospitals and maternity wards are busy, so we worked with them to come up with the most convenient way to deliver this information,” Sorth says. “We came up with the idea for this bag and expanded [what came in it] as we started talking to private funders and organizations in St. Louis that wanted to be a part of it.”
Born to Read is funded primarily through the St. Louis County Library Foundation, along with other area organizations and corporations like Cardinals Care, Great Southern Bank and Delta Dental, to name a few.
The program’s funding has allowed bags to be delivered far and wide in St. Louis County, with 47,000 families receiving a bag and library card since Born to Read’s inception. Hospitals handed out 12,000 bags in 2018 alone, and the addition of Mercy Hospital earlier this year will bring another 9,000 babies into the Born to Read family in 2019.
“I think having a child hear words and make a connection starting at birth means they’re going to have a great chance at staying on track in school,” Sorth says. “When they get to third and fourth grade, if they’re not at the right reading level, it’s hard for them to catch up. It’s important to get them interested and hear how words translate into stories.”
Sorth says the feedback from both parents and hospitals has been great over the years.
“We get a lot of people who send us photos of their babies in the hospital with their Born to Read bags,” she says. “Hospitals love it, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics includes reading to babies as one of the things doctors talk to new parents about. For the doctors, this is a really easy way to talk to parents about reading from the start.”
The Born to Read program serves as the initial kickoff to a child’s lifelong library experience, as well. As the child’s first birthday nears, parents receive an invitation to come to the library for a birthday celebration, where they receive another free book, the parents talk about early literacy with library staff, and staff members introduce the parents to all the programs the library features, like 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten. Library communications manager Jennifer McBride notes that it has seen an increase in attendance for parents and young children and hopes that increase is due to programming like Born to Read.
“Attendance at our children’s programs was up 10 percent in 2018 over the previous year,” she says. “I can’t attribute that directly to Born to Read, but it has definitely helped spread awareness of all the early literacy resources and programming available at the library.”
With an increase in foot traffic at the library, Sorth and her team hope to build on the programming that’s become so important to the organization’s mission.
“We really want to continue Born to Read long-term,” Sorth says. “And we want people to know that the library offers so many additional tools for caregivers to encourage kids and keep them engaged and learning.”
Born to Read through St. Louis County Library, various branches, 314-994-3300, slcl.org