While volunteering at a local nonprofit providing free books to low-income children, Benjamin Olshin learned about the importance of early literacy for school and social success and started thinking about babies. Olshin learned of research demonstrating that Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) babies, especially those cared for in single rooms, have higher rates of deficits in speech and language development; yet reading, singing and talking with NICU babies appears to support infant speech and language development, promote literacy and support family bonding.
Determined to make a difference, Olshin, who has received The Association of Fundraising Professional's Youth in Philanthropy Award, founded Babies With Books in 2017 with a team of engaged peers who shared his passion. Today, the youth-led program supplies books to babies in the Randall Children's Hospital NICU. In their first 18 months, BWB distributed 790 books to 300 families and received generous corporate and individual financial sponsorship. Moreover, family feedback surveys reveal that the program is increasing the amount of time families spend reading with their babies by more than doubling their average daily reading time, increasing from 11 to 28 minutes per day, and have tripled the number of weekly reading sessions, from 2 to 6 sessions per week. BWB has 12 teen volunteers from five Portland high schools and four adult volunteers and continuously recruits younger team members to support and grow the program.
"I work to inspire my classmates and other peers by talking with them about the challenges faced by NICU families, the recent research supporting reading with babies, and the rewards of working with the team. BWB provides many leadership roles to its volunteers so each team member can find the most enjoyable and meaningful ways to contribute. For example, Abigale Baines is our team's Director of Engagement, Anushka Gupta orders books and Rachel Yoken is our lead on survey data collection. The BWB teen and adult volunteers are passionate about their work and grateful to participate in community service that benefits the health and well-being of babies and families in Oregon, Washington, and beyond," Olshin said.
The BWB team's book cart features a selection of books in various languages that they offer to families to read with their infants and to take home when they are discharged. Additionally, the team meets with families to discuss the importance of reading with their babies and provides written guidelines about how best to read with very young or fragile babies.
BWB is beginning to collaborate with the Multnomah County Library and their inspiring work has created momentum to expand early literacy efforts throughout the Randall Children's Hospital to benefit more families and children. Called "Randall Reads" the program will include shared reading spaces across the hospital and additional unit-specific reading programs.
BWB is receiving positive recognition beyond Portland. In September, BWB showcased its program at the NW Neonatal Improvement Priority Alliance's annual meeting where leaders from 11 NICUs in Oregon and SW Washington considered adopting this type of program. And in October, BWB traveled to Chicago to attend the Vermont Oxford Network's 19th Annual Quality Congress where 1,300 health care professionals learned about new science, data and approaches in the care of infants and families. At the conference, BWB was considered a template program for NICUs worldwide.
Olshin says that reading with babies appears to be especially important for NICU babies who are at high risk of poor neurodevelopmental outcome due to prematurity, critical illness, prolonged hospitalization, and/or low socioeconomic status. Babies requiring NICU care have higher rates of speech and language deficits and other learning difficulties than do healthy babies.
"My greatest joy is interacting with families in the NICU and seeing their excitement when they learn they can read with their baby and that this will help their baby grow and develop," Olshin said. "We are delighted by the feedback we are receiving on the program, including learning from one parent who never knew he could read to his baby before BWB came to his room and one mother was happy because it gave her husband a way to bond with their little baby in an easy way."
At 16 years old, the Catlin Gabel School junior is no stranger to philanthropy. Has served his community through a Lift Urban Portland Internship where he delivered food and learned about the organizational development and processes of the food band along with strategies for reducing food insecurity in Portland. He served as a weekly peer tutor and participated in the L'Taken Social Justice seminar, an intensive experiential social action learning program in Washington, D.C. where he lobbied congressional representatives on gun safety and other current issues. Olshin leads by example, is a conscientious student, maintains a GPA above 4.00, heads multiple school clubs, was elected to the Catlin Gabel Judicial Council and is a competitive gymnast.
Olshin quotes Dr. Seuss as a model for his inspiration to promote literacy: "'The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go,'" he said.