Children hear some funnystories at the U hospital

Andrew Tellijohn

Children regularly gather in a small playroom furnished with puffy block-shaped pillows and chairs resembling red elephants and purple hippopotamuses.
If they can’t find a chair to sit on, they lay on a “magic carpet” and listen to adults like Marvin Hunsaker, a retired transportation salesman, read books like “The Cat in the Hat” and the story of Old MacDonald’s farm.
Hunsaker is one of 10 volunteers involved in a program called Project Read, which began in April.
For two hours a day, volunteers read to children who are patients or visitors at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic.
“We don’t want the kids to get bored,” Hunsaker said. “That’s the first thing you look out for.”
To keep them involved, he pauses between pages to talk with the children or encourages them to read along. If it’s a story like “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” Hunsaker has to read amid a roomful of clucking, mooing and oinking noises.
Most of the books are geared toward preschool-aged children, but children of all ages can come to the room in the Phillips-Wangensteen Building and listen.
Sometimes, if there are only a few people in the room, Hunsaker will also encourage children to take turns reading to the rest of the group.
Dr. Robert Fisch, pediatrician at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic and St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center, said he designed Project Read because many children are spending more time watching television than reading books.
“The child needs to get the attention,” Fisch said. He said when parents read books to their children, even at a very young age, they are forming an important bond. The children also tend to enjoy books later in life, he said.
“We’re not trying to make literary critics out of them,” Hunsaker said. “We’re trying to make readers out of them.”
The program is funded largely by University Hospital and private donations. After the daily reading, children are allowed to choose a book to take home with them.
Eventually Fisch said he hopes the Project Read program will be used by other pediatric clinics.
“It’s a very important way to enhance our relationship with the patients and their parents, and the future of their children,” Fisch said. “To make your children’s lives better, that’s what is important.”