United Hospital Fund Literacy Project, funded by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, Makes Lasting Difference at East Harlem Health Center
At Settlement Health center in East Harlem, the proof of a post-pandemic literacy drive is on the bookshelves. The waiting room shelves, whose supply was largely depleted during the pandemic, are now not only fully stacked but have overflowed to include a back-up supply of books in the basement.
"When I started residency in 2020, our bookshelf had like four books on it — we weren’t able to give books to kids when they had their visit,” said Jasmine Blake, MD, one of two resident physicians with Mount Sinai’s Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program leading the endeavor. “It’s been a big difference.”
But Dr. Blake is quick to point out that the literacy efforts—largely completed during Settlement’s year-long participation in a United Hospital Fund literacy project—go well beyond a growing book collection.
One of four pediatric practices participating in UHF’s inaugural project, “Pediatric Steps to Literacy, One Book at a Time,” Settlement received guidance, resource connections, a donation of books, and $7,500 in funding to fully integrate early literacy practices into their primary care space. The UHF project, funded by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, was launched to reduce an educational divide exacerbated by the pandemic. Research shows that early literacy can influence not only a child’s school outcomes, but also their long-term economic stability, health, housing, and social opportunities.
For Settlement, a big part of fully integrating literacy at the health center came through a partnership with the New York Public Library that stemmed from the UHF project. Building on a Reach out and Read partnership Settlement has had for more than a decade, the library system helped grow a “reading room” in Settlement’s waiting area.
The additions included English and Spanish literacy posters, educational puzzles, magnetic boards, and kid-size couches.
They also donated 120 “literacy kits” for Settlement to give out to its patients. Settlement is now recreating their own version of the kits to distribute to patients annually, including calendars with local events, an age-appropriate book, and practice materials like alphabet flashcards.
The kits will tackle an essential but often challenging part of the pediatrician’s role in literacy development: ensuring it continues at home. According to Settlement physicians, a big part of their literacy project journey was recognizing that boosting reading skills and confidence among caregivers is often as crucial as encouraging them in children. This is particularly true among immigrant or structurally marginalized communities, like those Settlement serves, who may have limited adult literacy or English proficiency.
While providing tangible resources like books are important, physicians also focused on emphasizing that the “power of a story” can include bonding moments that transcend a parent’s own literacy skills, like making up their own plot to a picture book.
“For us, it was really about empowering families that reading and literacy is not as narrow of a definition as they think,” said Luis Seija, MD, another resident physician leading Settlement’s literacy effort. “Literacy is a lifespan. It is for everyone.”
Another way to involve the whole family can be participating in literacy-focused events. Through its library partnership, Settlement has been tapped to host monthly library card sign-up events and has started participating in reading-focused activities held at the nearby Aguilar Library branch.
In addition to Settlement’s growing book collection, a critical transformation has been taking place in its content.
One of the health center’s goals during the UHF literacy project was to center health equity, social justice, and anti-racism in its literacy resources. This has included ensuring both books and materials like posters or free bookmarks are in multiple languages. Plus, the library catalogue has been expanded to highlight diverse stories, representing people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and gender-affirming narratives. The results of the expanded catalogue have been “beautiful to watch,” according to Dr. Blake.
“It’s been really nice to give my Arabic families a book that has someone wearing a hijab on the front or give our little Black children a book about a little Black child becoming a scientist,” Dr. Blake said. “It’s been really impactful seeing them see themselves in the books and materials they’re receiving.”
Settlement has also made it a point to expand its library by age, too. While early literacy programs are often geared toward children under 5 years old, Settlement’s teen patients have been some of the most excited to receive the book offerings, physicians said.
Though it spanned just one year at Settlement, the UHF literacy project’s impact did not end when 2022 came to a close.
Both Dr. Blake and Dr. Seija have continued their efforts in 2023, including designing bookmarks with information about literacy milestones, ordering supplies for Settlement-specific literacy kits, and continuing research into more inclusive posters for the waiting room.
The pair, who will both leave Settlement when their residency programs end, has also been setting up trainings for “literacy champions” they’ve identified among staff. The training will include quarterly meetings and workshops to ensure the progress made is embedded in the health center and continues as staff depart or new staff arrive.
“It was such a privilege to be included in everything UHF had to offer us. As you can see, we’re still talking about it...and we will continue to talk about it,” Dr. Seija said. “A donation of $7,500 has gone such a long way in our health center—it will be forever impactful.”