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magazine home > archives > summer 2003 > features

Nursing School faculty and students at the University of Memphis take on new responsibilities as they reach into the community to promote literacy rates among children.

More Than Band-Aids
by Dottie Brown

Nurses are traditionally known as individuals who dedicate themselves to their patient's physical well-being. However, students and faculty of the Loewenberg School of Nursing at the University of Memphis are taking their duties one step further.

Nursing students with children's books

Hannah Stansbury, Larkin Warner, Lesley Morley, Nicole Black and Leesa Spencer were among the U of M nursing school students who participated in the literacy project.

This summer, a team comprised of nursing school faculty and students began an initiative that is taking care of intellectual well-being, too — a project that promotes literacy. Utilizing contacts made with young mothers and children at local health facilities, the nursing students are educating parents on the importance of reading by supplying them with educational materials and opportunities for discussion.

A major component of the project is to provide books and other literacy-enhancing materials to the target group, according to Dr. Nancy Mele, a nursing school assistant professor who is coordinating the project.

"We have put together approximately 2,000 book bags," says Mele. "In each bag are two age-appropriate books. We also have developmental messages linked to reading — this is what your child is doing at this age and that development can affect activities that promote reading."

The bags also include information on how to obtain a library card, and the location of libraries and how to use them. The nursing school team worked with local advertising agency Sossaman + Associates to design the materials in an attractive, easily understood manner geared towards the target audience.

"The target population for the project is children from birth to five years old," says Mele.

Other faculty involved in the project include associate professor Marjorie Luttrell and assistant professors Jean McIvor, Carolyn Speros, Robert Koch and Tommie Norris. Lesley Morley is the student coordinator of the group.

"It has been demonstrated that when reading is introduced at a young age, children excel in school and do well on standardized tests," says Morley. "I think it is very important to stress how crucial it is to have a child interested in learning. Reading even while pregnant enhances the ability to learn earlier in childhood. I feel this is an excellent step to better our community and show the involvement of the nursing school in the metro area."

Students in the maternity concentration are responsible for teaching parents of newborn babies the importance of reading to their child. The goal is to reach 500 new mothers each academic year at Methodist Germantown, Baptist Women's Hospital and the Regional Medical Center.

The other section of students is focusing on pedi-atrics and will work with the Porter-Leath Children's Center Head Start program, which prepares children from low-income families to succeed in elementary school.

The nursing students also are working with the Catholic Diocese of Memphis to provide a proper education for children in the Diocese's six Jubilee Schools, which are located in low-income areas. The nursing students in these schools and neighborhoods are directly working with children by reading to them and with them.

"Our society has made it acceptable to leave the books on the shelf and pick up the remote control," says Morley. "It is important that we return to literacy in order to preserve our children's future education." Mele says that the nurses' approach to the promotion of literacy is unique and irreplaceable.

"Nurses have contact with new mothers in ways that others do not have," Mele says. "We are there at birth. We are there in those critical hours following birth when parents are like sponges in wanting to learn so many things. That is a way for us to access a population that does not usually get this message."

Mele notes that many programs neglect the fact that reading and learning begin at birth. "You could walk up to most people on the street and ask if they have any thoughts about the importance of reading to a newborn baby," she says. "Most of them would say, 'A newborn ... why would you do that?' The goal of our maternity students is to educate the parents on the importance of reading to all ages."

The literacy project was made possible through a one-year $20,000 technical assistance grant from the Assisi Foundation of Memphis. Assisi is a nonprofit organization that works to enhance health care, education and cultural advancement.

With the funding, Mele's group partnered with It's Time to Read, an organization established in 1997 with the theme of promoting the importance and enjoyment of reading in the Memphis metropolitan area.

"We wanted not to recreate the wheel, but to tag on to the It's Time to Read efforts," says Mele. "What we are doing is different in means, but our mission is mostly the same — to facilitate early reading."

A survey will measure the success of the project. Subsequent national recognition could mean more funding, which could lead to the opportunity for involvement with a larger effort. First Book, an organization that works through other programs to provide books to children of low-income families, is one such possibility.

Mele says the project may spur other similar initiatives within the nursing school.

"We have some lofty ideas as to how we would like to infuse emergent literacy into all of our curriculum," she says.

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