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Books for early readers

​Best Beginnings fosters vibrant vocabularies

Cimmie White doesn’t remember much about the hours after her son, Nickolas’ birth. Like many new moms, she was exhausted and recovering, getting as much sleep as possible before the challenging yet precious moments ahead.

Her husband, however, was alert. So when a Providence Alaska Medical Center volunteer told him about a program called Imagination Library, in which Nickolas would receive one free book a month – as long as they’d read it to him – the new father asked, “Where do I sign up?”

Imagination Library is one of several programs operating under the auspices of Best Beginnings, an Alaska-based public-private partnership that encourages parents and caregivers to introduce their children to reading as early as possible.

After all, says Abbe Hensley, executive director of Best Beginnings, “The first three years is a time of great brain growth.”

National research has repeatedly shown that children who are read to do better at school, increase their vocabulary at a faster rate and have higher test scores than their peers with a smaller vocabulary. Literacy advocates have tracked similar progress across Alaska.

“In 2009 and 2011, University of Alaska Anchorage researchers found that parents of children in the program longer than one year read with their children more often, reported their children had more books, and said their children were more enthusiastic about books and reading,” Hensley said. “They also felt their children were better prepared for school.”

This is where Providence Health & Services Alaska demonstrates its support. As advocates for the poor and vulnerable, including its youngest patients, Providence saw a way to partner with Best Beginnings so that every child born at Providence would have access to the Imagination Library program. Best Beginnings also does outreach to other areas outside Providence.

“Our relationship with Providence has been quite fabulous,” Hensley said. In 2014, she said Providence’s $25,000 donation helped Imagination Library continue offering high-quality, age-appropriate books to children from birth to age 5. The donation was part of Providence Health & Services Alaska’s $58 million in community benefit in 2014.

For White, the program has not only allowed her to enjoy new books with Nickolas, now 11 months, and her daughter, Isabel, 2 ½, but also has enhanced family time in the White household.

“That attention and that bonding time, when the kids get to sit together and have that brother-sister time, is great,” White said. “It brings the whole family together because we are doing it together. After a long and busy day, it’s a relief to just sit down as a family and read a book together.”

Hensley said Imagination Library’s enrollments have grown dramatically since Best Beginnings became the statewide sponsor in 2009. During that year, it signed up 3,673 children up to age 5. By 2014, that number had jumped to 23,603. Imagination Libraries have expanded to 113 communities across the state, and with local support are thriving. But Providence’s continued support is part of the backbone of the program.

“As the program grows, we want it to be richer throughout,” Hensley said. As such, not only do children who are registered in the program receive free monthly books, but there also are what Hensley calls “Family Engagement Activities,” events throughout the state that help parents learn fun and interesting ways to better engage with their children.

“For Providence to support us as it has is an example of how they work to fulfill their mission to serve,” Hensley said.