At age 15, Alex Ricciardelli of Marblehead, Massachusetts, learned of an innovative opportunity for community service. In the nearby city of Lynn, the Lynn Community Health Center was promoting early childhood literacy right in its pediatric waiting room by asking volunteers to read aloud to children who had come to the Center for routine well-baby checkups. The program, called Reach Out and Read, immediately appealed to Ricciardelli, who soon became one of its most dedicated, energetic and imaginative volunteers. For two-and-a-half years, he has not only shown up weekly to read to kids, but has also recruited others from his high school to do the same, and once organized a drive that brought in 150 donated children’s books. This year, he took his volunteerism to a new level when he wrote and published his own children’s book in order to raise money for the Center.
“Alex is an amazing young man and a born problem-solver,” says Clare Hayes, who coordinates Reach Out and Read. “When he sees a need, he finds a way to help.”
The Lynn Community Health Center has more than 37,000 patients, including a high percentage from low-income and immigrant communities, where, statistically, children are often less likely to have exposure to books and reading at home. The Center launched Reach Out and Read in the 1990s because studies showed that children who are read to from infancy are better prepared to read and learn when they enter school.
“Our goal was to create a literacy-rich environment in the waiting room,” says Hayes. “Between the ages of six months and five years, most of our pediatric patients make 10 well-baby visits to the Health Center. When they come in, volunteers read aloud to them and they are given a book to take home. For many of the children, it’s their first exposure to reading, and they are usually delighted. Alex and our other volunteers, some of whom can read in languages other than English, are truly playing a critical role in these kids’ lives.”
Ricciardelli was inspired to write his own children’s book at a time when book donations at the Health Center had dropped off.
“They needed books, and I had enjoyed writing stories in school, so I decided to write my own and give the profits to the Center,” says Ricciardelli. “It needed pictures, so I found an experienced illustrator, Jill Dister, on Craigslist and hired her.”
His book, “A Small Tale: The Adventures of Melvin”—which is now available from Amazon.com—is about the problems, and advantages, of growing up short.
“I was a short kid back in the day, so it’s partly autobiographical,” says Ricciardelli. “You should read it; it’s the best book ever,” he adds jokingly.
Now 17, Ricciardelli is entering his senior year of high school, and wants to make sure that students from his alma mater continue to volunteer at the Health Center.
“I’m taking a course in social action next year, and the only requirement is to do three hours’ service work per week,” says Ricciardelli. “My friends and I are going to recruit as many students in the class as possible to do their service work at the Health Center. It will be a great experience for them. The children you read to get captivated by the stories, and when they find out they get to keep the book, they’re so surprised and grateful. It’s terrific.”