Samantha Alexander first met Dr. Emily Gallagher, a craniofacial pediatrician in Seattle Children’s Craniofacial Center, when Alexander brought her 5-month-old son, Kai, to the clinic. Kai’s primary care doctor thought plates in his skull had fused together too quickly. He was evaluated for a metopic ridge, creating a point on his forehead.
While she feared he may need surgery, everything turned out fine. Alexander lovingly jokes, “He has a really big head.”
But from that initial clinic appointment, Alexander and Gallagher bonded over an unlikely love: children’s books. After the appointment was over, they chatted about their favorite books for nearly 30 minutes.
Alexander was an elementary school teacher before moving to Seattle with her husband, DJ Alexander. They moved in 2017 when DJ, a professional football player, was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. She had given up her teaching career, but she held fast to her love of books.
During that first appointment, Gallagher brought up a program called Reach Out and Read, which gives books to children 6 months to 6 years old during well-child visits. Gallagher started the program in the Craniofacial Center as a novel program outside of primary care. In the Craniofacial Center, pediatricians encourage families to read aloud together as a way to promote language development, with an additional focus on children with craniofacial differences who may face additional challenges with speech. Although Alexander’s son was too young for the program at the time, she says she instantly knew she wanted to help Gallagher expand the program.
“At the time, I was looking for a way to take my passion as a teacher in a different direction,” said Alexander. “Not only did Dr. Gallagher care for my son, but she also helped spark my interest in the program.”
Giving more books to more kids
When Gallagher started the program in the Craniofacial Center she wanted to specifically gear it towards children with craniofacial conditions.
“The way we set up the program in the Craniofacial Center is slightly different,” said Gallagher. “Following the traditional Reach Out and Read model, we choose books that are age specific, but we also pick books that focus on different speech sounds. A lot of our kids need speech therapy, and if we know they are working on certain sounds, we’ll give them a book to help support and reinforce what they’re doing in speech therapy. For instance, if a child with a cleft palate is being seen and we know that they need to work on their ‘S’ sounds, we can give them a book like “Silly Sally.”
Gallagher says the Reach Out and Read program has not only been appreciated by patients and their families, it’s also having a positive impact at home. Results from preliminary research that Gallagher is leading show that children with clefts are vocalizing more at home after being introduced to the Reach Out and Read program.
Thor (TJ) Milojevich is 3 years old and was born with a cleft lip and palate. He’s been a patient at Seattle Children’s since infancy and has been participating in the Reach Out and Read program. According to his mother, Paige Beckwith, and father Jack Milojevich, Reach Out and Read and speech therapy at Seattle Children’s and in the community have helped him tremendously.
Kaylee Paulsgrove, TJ’s speech language pathologist, uses books during his speech therapy appointments to help with specific sounds he has trouble pronouncing properly.
“By using books, not only are we making our sessions fun, but we are also enriching TJ’s literacy and language skills,” said Paulsgrove.
Last week, TJ and Paulsgrove were reading “Little Blue Truck” and were focusing on getting sounds to come out of TJ’s mouth instead of his nose, a common problem for children born with cleft palate.
“The program has been a huge help for kids like TJ,” said Milojevich. “Without Seattle Children’s, I don’t know where he’d be today. At home we reinforce what they teach him in therapy. His progress has been incredible. There was a time when he wasn’t able to communicate with us. As parents, it was heartbreaking. Today, he’s an entirely different child.”
Beckwith, TJ’s mother, said it’s been remarkable to see his improvement and his love for books blossom.
“TJ has made incredible strides,” she said. “I’m so proud of him and all he has accomplished. When he reads a book with us, I can see his confidence growing and his imagination flourishing. I’m so excited to see what the future holds for TJ.”
Helping more children
Gallagher and Alexander are on a mission to provide more books to children like TJ, and hopefully one day, to every child at Seattle Children’s.
“I would love for this to become a program that extends throughout the hospital so we can be advocating as a hospital for early childhood literacy,” said Gallagher. “In order to help reach our goals – to give every child under 6 a new book that they can take home – we need support.”
To help raise money for the program, Alexander partnered with her husband and the Seahawks to launch a CrowdRise campaign. For every individual who donates $10 through the fundraising platform CrowdRise, participants will be entered into a chance to win a VIP experience for four to Seahawks training camp, including a meet and greet with DJ.
“It’s a fun way to spark interest in the community,” said Alexander. “I feel really lucky to be involved in something I’m so passionate about, and to be advocating for my community.”
Gallagher and Alexander have a goal to raise $20,000 to fund the program. Their vision is to see every child leave the hospital with a book in their hand.
“I would love that,” Gallagher said with a big smile.
“The program means a lot to me, but I think it also means a lot to families,” she continued. “We see a lot of kids who have very little access to books at home. By giving them a book in clinic, they’re developing their own library. I love children’s books and I also love interacting with kids around books. To be able to share that love, it’s wonderful.”
To be entered into the contest, register here at CrowdRise.