A Prolific Advocate for Georgia's Children, Dr. Jay Berkelhamer

Reach Out and Read National Board Member and ROR GA Advisory Board Member

Dr. Jay BerkelhamerDr. Jay Berkelhamer is an important figure in the history of Reach Out and Read Georgia, but also plays an instrumental role as part of the National organization.

Dr. Berkelhamer is a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and he sits on the National Board of Reach Out and Read, Inc. as well as the local Reach Out and Read Georgia Advisory Board.

Dr. Berkelhamer is so committed to the total well-being of children that he also is on the board of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS), Camp Twin Lakes, and Georgians for a Healthy Future. He's a trustee of the America's Promise Alliance, he's the Health Council co-chair of The United Way of  Greater Atlanta and an Executive Committee Member of the International Pediatric Association.

His involvement in Reach Out and Read dates back to his days practicing at the University of Chicago in the early 1990's.

"I was working in the pediatric clinic and learned of Reach Out and Read in Boston. I was really was intrigued by it. I saw the potential it had so I started a program in the University of Chicago outpatient clinic."

Dr. Berkelhamer's support of the program continued through a period of time working in Detroit and eventually a move to Atlanta in 1999.

Dr. Berkelhamer reports having always been a fan and supporter of the program. "It makes a lot of sense. It's very consistent in terms of what doctors ought to be doing in counseling parents."

He cites the three components of the Reach Out and Read model as a comprehensive and holistic approach to introducing the importance of early childhood literacy.

"Waiting rooms at doctor's offices and clinics that employ the Reach Out and Read model have literacy-rich waiting areas. The TV gets turned off. This is a passive tool," he says, "it amuses children but it doesn't engage them.

Then the doctor counsels the parents on the importance of reading together for optimal brain development," he continues. "Then, the child is presented with the age-appropriate new book to take home."

"Many of the families that come to a clinic or a doctor's office they don't have access to these resources otherwise. Over half of the children who live in Georgia get their healthcare through medicaid. A new book is a small thing; but it's a very precious thing."

After serving as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006, Dr. Berkelhamer was asked to be on the Board of Reach Out and Read in 2007, and has been serving on the Board since.

In Georgia, Dr. Berkelhamer was anxious to be supportive of the program as it grew rapidly. He worked with the National organization to secure initial funding from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which provided the resources to help launch the state office and hire a state Executive Director.  

"Amy Erickson [Reach Out and Read Georgia Executive Director] has been extraordinary. Our reach has increased dramatically under her leadership. I often work with her and Dr. McFadden on our Georgia related initiatives.."

When asked why this cause is important to him, Dr. Berkelhamer says, "My heart and soul is in doing what I can to promote the health and well-being of all children. Having served so many years as a pediatrician, I watched children from their earliest moments. I realized learning is something that begins very early, and now there is a lot of science that has proven that. Engaging the parents in reading is one of the best ways to build a child's vocabulary - children who get this kind of attention will do much better when they enter pre-school and learn to read. The love of reading and a love of books is something you can embed in children."

Consistent among the doctors and healthcare providers we talk to, Dr. Berkelhamer reiterates the children's enthusiasm for the program as well. Children come to the doctor's office, get a book, and they are so excited. These are new books. Many of these children come from homes that don't have such things."

When he looks at the work Reach Out and Read Georgia has done, he's also quite rewarded by the enthusiasm new doctors have regarding the program. "When new pediatricians come to the clinic and they see Reach Out and Read in action, they have a breakthrough. They see the magic of communication with the parent and with the infant. It seems like they become excited they can be the kind of doctor that facilitates that kind of communication."

Dr. Berkelhamer's message to parents is also as clear as it is encouraging, "I've told parents who seem concerned that they don't read well that it's not about their reading skills. They can go through and talk about the pictures and you will use words you wouldn't use in normal conversation. Repeating and reading the same book is joyful for the child - their brain is getting wire up, it's creating connections - the repetition is quite normal and quite good."

It's never too early to start reading together, Dr. Berkelhamer reiterates. "Learning begins from the first day of life."

Looking forward, Dr. Berkelhamer would like to see Reach Out and Read Georgia become a true standard of care in the pediatric community. He'd like to see it become part of reimbursements. Most of all, he'd like to see the reach of the program expand to aid the somewhere between 250K-300K children in Georgia who are growing up in circumstances of most need, who would benefit from the program.

Contact Reach Out and Read
Reach Out and Read National Center
89 South St, Suite 201
Boston, MA 02111