QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — Sarah Walton already understands the importance of spending time reading to her children.

"You can never read too much to little ones. They absorb everything," Walton said.

But she got a reminder -- along with new books for the kids -- during a visit to the Adams County Health Department as Sylvia Baxter settled on a couch to read a superhero book with 4-year-old Derrick while 3-year-old Ariel thumbed through a book on her own.

Baxter volunteers with Ready. Set. Grow! West Central Illinois, an initiative of the Regional Office of Education designed to encourage parents to read with their children.

"It's a good program," Walton said. "They love books."

Parents are a child's first teacher, and "especially when they have babies, I encourage them to read to their children," Baxter said. "I always tell the parents don't just read the words, talk about it and the colors on the page. The more words you use, the more they're learning."

Ready. Set. Grow! volunteer readers invested 643.5 hours in the past year visiting with parents in the Women Infants Children, or WIC, program, sharing 2,096 one-on-one short conversations about the brain-building power of the early years and giving out 3,093 books while spending time reading aloud to the children.

"A lot of times the parents learn so much by watching us with their children," said Sandy Schlepphorst, another volunteer. "Kids know after a while when they have an appointment, they get a book. It builds up their home library. We talk to them about how these are their own books and how we read our own books over and over."

Volunteers staff the waiting room four hours a day four days a week.

"They like it when we come. It entertains the children, and it's a learning situation," said Baxter, a retired preschool teacher.

"It's such an easy thing to do sitting in the waiting room waiting for families to come, strike up a conversation about books and offer them a free one," said Schlepphorst, who worked in the social work field.

The conversations stress the "brain building" done through reading to children from birth. Young children who are read to regularly by family members experience multiple benefits including boosts in literacy development, social-emotional gains and increased likelihood of overall school success.

"A lot of parents say I didn't know I should start reading so early, and once they do know, they start," said Jan Cory, who coordinates the initiative at the ROE. "After they do it, they learn how fun it is, how much fun the baby or toddler has."

The initiative got its start in 2013 working with parent educators and home visitors, then added the volunteers -- described by Cory as "a perfect mix of loving children and loving reading -- in 2014.

The ROE partnered with the health department to reach families and children served by the WIC program from birth to age 5. Financial support for the initiative comes through the United Way of Adams County, Community Foundation, Kiwanis, Quincy Service League and other grants.

Parents and children can choose from an assortment of gently-used books in the health department waiting room at any time, and grants provide age-appropriate new books for volunteers to hand out.

"What mom and baby doesn't want a new book?" Cory said. "It's just really amazing how many hours they put in, how many books parents have selected. It's great. Books are out in homes being used."

By starting with a simple concept, Schlepphorst said the impact can be huge.

"It's very fun. Not all of them will sit down with you. Some are shy, but they take the free book and want to sit by mom and dad," Schlepphorst said. "They remember the book lady. The show me books they already have, and the parents start showing pictures of how much the kids like to read. One showed me a picture of a first-grader reading to a 3-year-old."

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://bit.ly/2wzJCNG

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com