Kevin Riordan: Babies get cuddles - and books

Story Storks volunteers Maureen Hicks (left) and Adrienne Evans visit Neema Bhat and her day-old daughter, Veeksha Dixit, at Cooper University Hospital. Reading to an infant "is about making a connection," Evans says of their program. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Story Storks volunteers Maureen Hicks (left) and Adrienne Evans visit Neema Bhat and her day-old daughter, Veeksha Dixit, at Cooper University Hospital. Reading to an infant "is about making a connection," Evans says of their program. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 19, 2013

Maureen Hicks, Adrienne Evans, and Barbara Funkhouser believe it's never too early to introduce babies to books.

Especially when the babies are early, too.

"The more language they hear, the more knowledge they have," says Hicks, leader of a group of volunteers who read to and cuddle premature infants at Cooper University Hospital.

A retired Westville elementary schoolteacher, Hicks, 55, is president of Story Storks (storystorks.org), the nonprofit she, Evans, and Funkhouser founded in 2012.

Reading to an infant "is about making a connection," says Evans, 37, who teaches senior English at Gateway Regional High School in Woodbury Heights.

Preemies born to drug-addicted mothers, Funkhouser adds, "seem to get the most attached" to the physical closeness and cozy rhythms of being read to.

"The babies who are going through withdrawal are the ones we read to [more often]," adds Funkhouser, 58, a retired insurance executive. "It calms them down."

I meet Funkhouser, Evans, and Hicks - all of whom live in Haddon Heights and have children of their own - at Cooper.

They and other Story Storks volunteers take turns making daily visits to the neonatal intensive care and mother-infant units at the main hospital in Camden.

Last year, Story Storks served about 1,000 of all 2,152 babies born at Cooper, preemies as well as full-term. The organization has an annual budget of $15,000, all of it donated or raised at events such as the "Run for Reading" 5K race set for Sept. 8 in Haddon Heights.

Thanks to the Storks, Cooper babies go home with a picture book (typical title, Hugs & Kisses) that's personalized with a sticker image of their own footprints. Parents are given bilingual materials encouraging them to read aloud to their kids.

Later, the families can "continue seeing the importance of early learning through programs like 'Building Blocks,' our free monthly parenting series through the Cooper Learning Center," says Robyn Harvey, senior director of patient care services for maternal-child health.

"We never thought of [reading] so early," says Angel Ramos, 39, a construction worker who's visiting Graciela Agustin, the mother of their day-old daughter, Ashley Marie, as the Story Storks stop by.

"The program is fabulous," says Ilza Gilmore, 25, sitting on her bed next to a crib that holds Jaxon, her newborn son.

Story Storks hatched from observations Hicks and Evans made in 2011 as Rowan University graduate students working with city youngsters - some of whom said they'd never had a book until they went to school.

The two women decided to address the need by establishing a nonprofit and sought someone with financial expertise; Hicks knew Funkhouser from a local book club, "Rosey Readers."

Although raising money is a challenge, Story Storks soon will begin offering services to newborns and their families at Inspira Medical Center (formerly Underwood Hospital) in Woodbury.

Hicks acknowledges we can't prove reading to an infant will later boost, say, reading scores in school.

But the intimacy and information exchange between adult and child as a book is read can't help but be beneficial.

And as I think about those impossibly tiny, heartbreakingly fragile preemies in the intensive care unit, most of them destined to live in one of America's poorest cities, the Story Storks mission strikes me as nothing short of essential.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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