Building Healthy Communities Through Literacy

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What comes to mind when you think of UNC REX Healthcare? Exceptional doctors and nurses, the birth of your children, or cutting-edge technology may be front of mind, but did you know that UNC REX Healthcare partners with WakeEd Partnership to help children learn to read? Though a focus on literacy may seem counterintuitive for a hospital, UNC REX Healthcare recognizes its significance and influence on every sphere within a community.

WakeEd Partnership’s Partners Read program enlists volunteers to read with first graders in more than 50 WCPSS elementary schools. On Friday mornings, volunteers read one-on-one with students who are not yet reading on grade level, in hopes of helping them reach this critical benchmark.

Under the leadership of Community Relations Manager Erin Gill, UNC REX Healthcare joined the program in 2015 and, in 2019, has more than 25 employees faithfully volunteering each week. Erin herself is a Partners Read volunteer. She remembers vividly her first Friday with Partners Read, three years ago, when her timid student approached her with hesitation. He picked out a book for them to read together and as Partners Read time came to an end, she gave him a high-five and sent him on his way to begin the school day. He started walking away, but then stopped suddenly, turned around, and ran to give Erin a hug. After a year of reading with Erin, this budding reader received the Reading Ninja award at his school for “most improved.” These moments, and more, illustrate the impact of Partners Read each year in Wake County, and keep UNC REX Healthcare volunteers coming back for more.

Every year, Wake County’s most pressing needs are identified and evaluated through extensive interviews, surveys, and forums conducted by the Wake County Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA). In 2019, Wake County CHNA determined that the top five county-wide priorities should be transportation options, employment, access to healthcare, mental health and substance use disorders, and housing and homelessness. As one of the Triangle’s top employers, UNC REX Healthcare has searched for ways to provide community support in the area of employment. Since 2015, UNC REX Healthcare has been prioritizing literacy through Partners Read because they believe that good readers become good employees. In short, literacy is the foundation of workforce development.

“It is vital for businesses to have a pulse on what the needs are in the community. If we come together for those big priorities, we can make a difference. All of that impacts every single business.”

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According to Erin, part of corporate social responsibility includes engaging employees in meaningful work in the community. UNC REX Healthcare goes beyond investing financially, working one-on-one with students who may one day become the doctors, teachers, architects, and artists of the Wake County community. “With Partners Read, it’s not just about the reading, it’s about the relationship,” she shared. Once employees become involved with the program, they want to continue year-after-year because it makes such an impact. In fact, in the spring of 2019, UNC REX Healthcare employees wanted to do more for the children involved in Partners Read. At the end of the school year, they assembled more than 300 summer literacy bags for students in the program, providing tools to help them continue their reading practice over the summer. The bags included books, bookmarks, a small dry erase board and markers, and local public library information.

Partners Read has a simple, but powerful structure that makes it easy for all businesses to get involved. Many literacy programs require a background in education, “but Partners Read accepts all volunteers,” Erin said. The only requirements are a love of reading and a willingness to give back.  Volunteers see first-hand the value of interpersonal relationships in the development of strong literacy skills.

Medicine and literacy seem worlds apart, but UNC REX Healthcare understands their interdependency. Erin and her fellow volunteers believe that WCPSS students are the “next generation of employees”, and that “it is important that we set them up for success”. By encouraging employees to volunteer, UNC REX Healthcare has a guiding hand in the growth and development of Wake County’s future workforce.

“It is important that the next generation has the tools they need to succeed. As a Wake County business, that is our responsibility.”

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