Community Hero 2023
Brenda Seagrave-Whittle’s interest in children’s literacy and its positive effects on families predates her involvement with Reach Out and Read Rhode Island. In the 1990s, early in her career as a social worker at Thundermist Health Center in Woonsocket, she conducted home visits and provided parenting education. Brenda quickly realized many families did not have access to books. “It broke my heart to see that so many of the families I was working with could not afford to purchase a $3 book for their kids. If you must choose between milk and a book, it’s not a choice.”
At the time, as a young mother herself, books were an important part of Brenda’s parenting. Reading time was a way to get the whole family connected. Her nighttime routine together with her son and daughter was dinner, bath, book, and then bed. Her husband Shelly often joined the family for bedtime stories.
This evening reading routine meant so much to Brenda that she wanted others to have the same opportunity to read together. That is when she got the idea to create a used book library at Thundermist where she and her coworkers, as well as staff from community agencies and parishioners from local churches, donated books that their children had outgrown. This gave families the chance to read together while waiting for their appointments.
Fast forward to 1999 when Thundermist’s Woonsocket location became the first “Reach Out and Read” site in Rhode Island. Following the model crafted by the national center of Reach Out and Read, Brenda visited local pediatricians to get them on board and to train them in Reach Out and Read’s evidence-based methods. Training doctors and ordering, and storing books kept her busy, especially on top of her full-time job, but the results were worth it. “Through Reach Out and Read, we created a process at Thundermist that allowed every child to have a book as they left the health center. Our goal was to create a real positive experience for the family.”
In 2004, Brenda joined the board of Reach Out and Read Rhode Island, eventually becoming chair. Around the same time, she started working at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, where today she is chief marketing officer. Her enthusiasm for Reach Out and Read led other community health centers in Neighborhood’s network to start the reading program as well. Brenda, many times with her two children in tow, worked with staff to set up the reading areas at many of the community health centers. This experience made a lasting impact for patients as well as her two children.
Her daughter Sarah especially liked to read Lurlene McDaniel, an author whose young adult books deal with children facing physical and emotional hardships. She often told Brenda that, one day, she was going to be a doctor who treats children with cancer. Now, a pediatric oncologist for eight years, Sarah excitedly called Brenda one day to share that she had given out her first Reach Out and Read book during her pediatric residency at the Brown Medical School. “My daughter had been on this journey with me since she was a kid. To see her connect the dots as a pediatrician, understand how vital the program is, and to show such enthusiasm for it …well, that was an incredible moment for me.”
Her son Sean, who is a high school history teacher, enjoyed reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. Brenda said, “I really believe Sean’s interest in reading played a big part in his energy and enthusiasm for teaching young people.”
Reach Out and Read Rhode Island continues to recommend that reading intervention begins at birth, based on evidence that this improves outcomes for children. It also strengthens family bonding time and fosters trust between doctor and parents. Pediatricians are encouraged to give books to families at the very first newborn appointment. Brenda noted, “These early investments are so critical to making sure that kids start off right. They also serve as an entryway into talking about things that might be difficult, including everyday care, literacy, and developmental screenings.”
Thanks in large part to Brenda’s involvement, Reach Out and Read Rhode Island has achieved many milestones since its 1999 start. Its success has been felt in homes and at community health centers across the state. For the program to continue to flourish, the challenge is to stand out among the many other equally valuable childhood intervention programs. Brenda believes that childhood memories play a powerful role in making this happen. “For most people, they can go right to that place where they remember their mom, dad, or grandparent reading to them and can find extraordinary moments in their life around that.”
Interested in becoming a sponsor?