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Tami Arthur, 42, is the El Rio Health Centers' Reach Out and Read volunteer coordinator. She hopes to almost quadruple her staple of volunteers--from eight to 30--who go to three of El Rio's clinics and read to children as part of the Reach Out and Read program, which seeks to make sure children grow up with books and a love of reading. The El Rio program gives out about 10,000 books a year, according to Arthur. While the nationwide program--which, according to the national Web site (www.reachoutandread.org), reaches more than 3,100 hospitals and health centers and 2.6 million children annually in the United States--is targeted toward kids from 6 months to 5 years old, Arthur says she'll do everything she can at El Rio to get books to kids older than 5, too. If you're interested in being a volunteer and have free time during weekday business hours, contact Arthur at either TamiA@elrio.org or Tarthur23@comcast.net, or call her at 577-9463.

What does a Reach Out and Read volunteer do?

A volunteer gets down on the kids' level. They connect with each child; they go out into the waiting room and encourage the child to take a book or sit down and read a book with them. They're there to serve as role models, to show parents it's OK to read with kids, and to show kids there are things that you can do with a book.

What do prospective volunteers have to go through?

They fill out a small application and give me a reference I can call so I can make sure they're good people. ... They need a yearly tuberculosis skin test. ... We give them a tour of the clinic, talk with them, let them observe another reader, and then I sit with them on their first day of reading.

What makes for a good volunteer reader?

Somebody who cares about kids, who's excited about getting kids ready for school, because that's what Reach Out and Read is all about. A developmental pediatrician I talked to (recently) said that if you don't get kids interacting socially before 3 years old, they're not going to be socially ready to interact in the world.

So you're saying the benefits of having volunteers read to kids goes beyond reading?

Yeah. It's communication. In my two years of reading to kids, I have never read a book all the way through. ... I interact with (the kids). That you're a proficient reader is not the name of the game. That you care about kids and want them to develop socially and intellectually is the game. To quote (Reach Out and Read supporter) Nadine Basha, "This is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the well-being of our country." You can extrapolate on that: Getting kids interested in books helps in developing self-esteem, self-confidence (and) learning that books can be an alternative to violence in our streets.

How do parents react to strangers coming up to their kids at a clinic and reading to them?

Well, you engage the parents when you engage the child. You're looking at both of them when you ask, "Would you like to go read a book?" Many of (the parents) come and sit and listen. ... They love the readers and the reading, especially the readers who are engaging. It's a good way for people to get over their fear of people, of speaking in public, of phobias of being around a large group of people. Nobody's going to laugh at you there. Parents are excited to see something going on, because they're waiting and waiting and waiting to see a doctor.

How much time do volunteers need to commit?

One to two hours per week, or (at least) every two weeks. And if they can stay for six months, that's fantastic. ... Once they start reading and realize they enjoy reading to kids, they stay.

Why do you only have eight volunteers?

I wish I knew. I have blurbs on the Volunteer Center Web site (volunteersoaz.org). ... You click on (those), and send me a name, and I e-mail back almost directly and give a brief description of the program, and invite (the prospective volunteer) in for a tour. Many set up appointments with me, and many don't show up. There are also a lot of people who have told me their time commitments have changed and that their work schedule does not permit them to come in.

If someone can't give time to volunteer, but may want to donate, what should they do?

Contact Brenda Goldsmith. Her e-mail is brendag@elrio.org, or call 792-9890 and ask for her. ... If you want to donate books, bring them into the main clinic at 839 W. Congress St., and pediatrics is on the first floor of the two-story building.

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