Nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jay Berkelhamer brought the Reach Out and Read program to the University of Chicago pediatric outpatient clinic. The Reach Out and Read program was in its infancy much like the young patients it serves, and, through implementing the model, Dr. Berkelhamer witnessed the value of a shared family literacy experience for early brain development. He explained, “What we are trying to do is to nurture the baby and to capture words.” As a University of Chicago faculty member, Dr. Berkelhamer understood the value of education and saw the Reach Out and Read program as an opportunity to connect with and encourage parents to fulfill their role as their child’s first and most important teacher.
In 1993, Dr. Berkelhamer left Chicago for Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System, and, like a pollinating honeybee, he developed programs, advocated for the cause and positively impacted the lives of countless families at every stop. He built his career on his compassion and dedication, from medical resident to Chief of Pediatrics, and then President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). He campaigned for the inclusion of early literacy messaging as a standard of pediatric care, and he catalyzed the forging of a deep connection between the AAP and the Reach Out and Read program.
In 2000, Dr. Berkelhamer accepted the role of Chief Medical Officer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where he crossed paths with Dr. Terri McFadden, a fierce and dynamic Reach Out and Read medical champion. “Dr. McFadden is a strong proponent of the program and an outspoken leader,” expressed Dr. Berkelhamer. Dr. McFadden had laid the groundwork incorporating several Georgia clinics, so Dr. Berkelhamer began to raise the structural foundations of the Reach Out and Read Georgia affiliate, where he continues to influence change as an Advisory Board Member. He is also a board member of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS), which advocates for early education in Georgia. Dr. Berkelhamer credits Reach Out and Read Georgia’s remarkable success and expansion to Executive Director, Amy Erickson.
Dr. Berkelhamer is especially proud of Reach Out and Read Georgia’s implementation and quality control measures to ensure a consistent and quality experience for families.
When Reach Out and Read founder, Barry Zuckerman, invited Dr. Berkelhamer to join the Reach Out and Read National Board of Directors, there was no hesitation. He views early literacy as a bedrock component of well-child care, and he has witnessed the effects of verbal interactions and executive function. In the exam room, Dr. Berkelhamer sees differences in the children’s ability to express themselves and their needs, and how expressive ability is a mitigating factor in negative behavior. The benefit of the program reaches far beyond access to books. Dr. Berkelhamer explains, “Reach Out and Read pays long-term dividends for the health and wellness of our children.”
Rotating off the Reach Out and Read National Board of Directors is bittersweet. Dr. Berkelhamer is immensely proud of the program’s evolution and community support. He is especially proud of Reach Out and Read Georgia’s implementation and quality control measures to ensure a consistent and quality experience for families. He has built relationships with his fellow board members and medical champions, who share the same motivation and drive to ensure all children have the resources they need in the critical early years of life. And, although he will miss being a part of the board room discussion and decision-making, he is looking forward to his next chapter, advocating for the program locally and internationally.
Dr. Berkelhamer has grown roots in Atlanta, Georgia and his next move is to support wider dissemination of the program to reach all Georgia children. His fighting spirit and professional experience will continue to drive his work. He is calling for state support via resources to improve school readiness and create equitable opportunities across Georgia. Dr. Berkelhamer has a clear vision of the program’s future, and, he stated, “There is no charge in the doctor’s office for the time and effort, but there should be enough funding so that we can lower any financial burden for all providers to get involved.”