Literacy Services for Homeless Youth Expand to Local Queens Community

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The Floating Hospital opens two new Reach Out and Read children's literacy programs in Long Island City

Michelle Morgan-Jackson reads with a patient at The Floating Hospital

Michelle Morgan-Jackson reads with a patient at The Floating Hospital

For a mother, whenever she comes, this is a mental getaway. She knows her kids are safe here.

The Floating Hospital, which provides health services to the homeless shelter population as well as the local communities of Long Island City and Queensbridge Public Housing, is making children's literacy a priority for the families it serves.

Currently, the Hospital offers the Reach Out and Read children's literacy program to the homeless families that visit the LIC clinic. They are now expanding this service to the local community. Through the Reach Out and Read program, children of LIC and Queensbridge Public Housing who visit The Floating Hospital for healthcare will receive free books to keep, and their parents will receive counseling on the importance of reading aloud to their children for healthy brain development and school readiness.

Michelle Morgan-Jackson, Senior Health Educator at the Hospital, will be overseeing the expansion of the Reach Out and Read program in the two clinical locations. For years, she has been helping the Hospital work with homeless families around children's literacy. For most families in the Reach Out and Read program, the message – read to your child every day – is repeated at regular checkups from 6 months through 5 years old. However, homeless children are part of a transient population, and their healthcare visits are often irregular. Many patients don’t return after their first visit.

“The important thing is that we get the opportunity to start the process,” said Mrs. Morgan-Jackson. “It’s for parents to continue the love of reading and we just hope that, at that first interaction, we did actually deliver the message.”

High housing costs, frozen or falling wages for low-income New Yorkers, and budget cuts to social services over the past 10 years have contributed to a 61 percent increase in the number of people staying at municipal shelters in New York City, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. As of March 2013, there were around 50,000 people in New York City shelters. Of these, 40 percent, or around 21,000, were children.

“There is so much going on mentally with these patients,” said Mrs. Morgan-Jackson, “It’s unbelievable… A lot of these parents are overwhelmed. For a mother, whenever she comes, this is a mental getaway. She knows her kids are safe here.”

Parents are actively involved during pediatric visits to The Floating Hospital. Pediatricians encourage parents to continue to read with their children, even if it’s the same sentence, page, or book, repeatedly. This action stresses the importance of reading to the child and may even help parents, especially if they have speech impediments, difficulties with the English language, or poor reading skills.

“This also teaches mommy,” said Mrs. Morgan-Jackson. “Your baby sees you learning and you’re learning together. You, mommy, you’re the first teacher. So it’s important for you to show that positive influence.”

The health education classroom at the LIC clinic is a bright, welcoming space. The walls are lined with shelves and cabinets containing rows of books, the majority from Reach Out and Read, and any available space is adorned with seasonal decorations and colorful artwork from students.

Although the primary caregivers are usually the ones reading to their children, Mrs. Morgan-Jackson has the opportunity to read to them when she holds workshops in the health education classroom at the front of the hospital. There, the Reach Out and Read books are handy teaching tools. The workshops generally cover topics such as the importance of physical health, nutrition and exercise, but also touch upon practical matters, such as reacting to everyday emergencies, or more complex social issues, like bullying.

Emotional development is especially significant when working with children in the homeless population. Mrs. Morgan-Jackson uses books from Reach Out and Read to teach children how to manage the difficult emotions they may experience. She also uses the books to address the stresses of a life-changing event.

Mrs. Morgan-Jackson knows many of the children by sight and name, greeting them as she navigates the corridors of the Long Island City clinic. On a typical day, the children will return to the health education classroom after finishing their visit with the pediatrician, clutching a new Reach Out and Read book of their own to keep.

“Everybody’s reading or looking at the pictures or whatever they’re doing with the book,” said Mrs. Morgan-Jackson, describing the scene in her room on a recent morning.

“This is a teachable moment,” she said, “everybody’s reading. Everybody’s reading.”


This story was written by Jennifer Ching, through a partnership with Catchafire.

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Asari Beale
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