Read Across America Day is March 3 and two students at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine are working to improve literacy and lifestyle behaviors among Hispanic youth in Eastern North Carolina, in conjunction with the James D. Bernstein Community Health Center and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.
The ECU medical students, Amber Heckart and Nyira “Lucy” Muhirwa, established a reading initiative and youth empowerment program for Hispanic youth at the Bernstein Community Health Center as Albert Schweitzer Fellows. The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF) supports students in conceiving and implementing year-long service projects to address the root causes of health needs in underserved communities. The North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellows Program has sponsored nearly 400 Fellows who have partnered with community-based organizations on a variety of health, wellness and prevention programs.
The Bernstein Community Health Center, located at 261 Belvoir Highway, provides medical and dental care to members of the Greenville community regardless of their ability to pay. The center also provides educational services through Pitt Community College.
“Literacy is a fundamental building block to success that develops the mind and the imagination,” said Dr. Tom Irons, associate vice chancellor for Health Sciences, professor of pediatrics at The Brody School of Medicine, and medical director of the Bernstein Community Health Center.
“The program Amber Heckart and Lucy Muhirwa developed is educating and empowering young people who might otherwise be left behind to do better in school, discover new things and make healthier life choices in a really engaging way,” added Dr. Irons, who also serves on the Advisory Board for the North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellows Program.
The reading initiative and empowerment program is an expansion of a 2009 Schweitzer Fellowship project called ALMAS-Alcancemos Las Metas/Let’s Reach Our Goals: a comprehensive mentoring, language proficiency, and tutoring project for Spanish-speaking women. In addition to having the children read and complete a new book each week, the Fellows encourage the mothers in the program to read with their children at home twice weekly. This serves to foster literacy skills and nurture a love of reading for both parents and children. This type of parent engagement strategy can also strengthen children’s school success and achievement. In fact, the program aims to increase the children’s literacy level by one half grade or higher. In addition, by presenting monthly nutrition themes, the children are learning to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors by being physically active three time a week, increasing their consumption of fruits and vegetables and learning how to make smart food choices such as the importance of replacing an unhealthy snack with a healthy one.
“Research shows that nearly half of Hispanic people over the age of 16 in the U.S. do not have basic English skills,” said Heckart. “This affects their ability to get good jobs, access appropriate health care and help their kids with their homework – among many other things. By helping Hispanic young people improve their literacy skills, we’re leveling the playing field for students from households where English isn’t the primary language.”
Sponsored by the National Education Association, the 17th Annual Read Across America Day promotes reading, particularly for children and young adults.
“As Read Across America Day approaches I’m reminded of how amazed and inspired I am by the young people in our program,” said Muhirwa. “As their reading skills have increased, their self-confidence has grown, their school performance has improved and they’re more interested in the world around them. I’d like to think we’re helping them lay a foundation for a better future.”
“Amber’s and Lucy’s collaboration with The Bernstein Community Health Center exemplifies the primary element of an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship: commitment to service,” said Barbara Heffner, director of the North Carolina ASF program. “These Fellows are not only demonstrating their own commitment to service, they are inspiring and nurturing that same ideal in the next generation of future leaders through their literacy program.”