She found her calling volunteering

by Jim Boyle

Julie Abear was an administrative assistant when she stumbled on her calling.

She answered a call for volunteers to become a “special reader” in the North St. Paul School District. Her employer allowed her to use her lunch hour to stop in at a nearby elementary school to read to children.

Julie Abear, coordinator of Fairview’s Reach Out and Read program, shows a sampling of books and information doctors are putting in children’s and parents’ hands. Photo by Jim Boyle

“It was such a benefit,” she said of the opportunity. “I got out of the office — out of the stress — and was able to focus on the really important things in life.”

This work with kindergarten students and first-graders led her to work for a Fairview Children’s Clinic in the inner city. The need for such a program was clear, but it was equally apparent  working at the front desk there was no funding.

“We couldn’t afford to buy Snoopy band-aids,” Abear said. “We had to buy the plain ones.”

Abear, with the support of the clinic administration, set out on a mission to find a program the clinic could get behind.

“Children were falling behind and we needed another way to reach families,” she said.

Abear looked at creating something from scratch, Reach Out and Read as well as another existing program.

Reach Out and Read had the mission they were looking for, which now appears in bright red letters on the back of her business cards. It reads: “Reach Out and Read prepares America’s youngest children to succeed in school by partnering with doctors to prescribe books and encourage families to read together.”

It also had a stable existence and plenty of materials that were created by the Boston Medical Center.

The program was launched in 2002 after garnering the support of clinic employees, including the doctors. After seeing the success, Abear eventually presented a proposal to a Fairview vice president to roll out the program at all Fairview clinics. It was approved and in the last year has reached all 38 clinics and is now a standard part of Fairview care. Abear serves as the coordinator of this, which takes her all over — from Milaca to Lakeville.

It’s the employees who make the program possible, by agreeing to have a portion of their paycheck  go to the program.

Abear also works with Lynne Burke, the Minnesota Reach Out and Read coordinator. The pair hopes to see the program expand in the Elk River area and elsewhere in Minnesota.