SHERIDAN, Wyo. — The sun shone and birds chirped as a light breeze rolled through Kendrick Park Monday morning. Award-winning author and Sheridan native Craig Johnson paused as he read from Mark Teague's "How I?Spent My Summer Vacation."
"What do cowboys say?" Johnson asked.
"Yeehaw!" a few little voices chirped.
"That was pretty good, but I think you can do better," Johnson responded.
The Aug. 13 reading was the tenth and final installment in Raising Readers in Wyoming's Summer Reading in the Park program. Johnson is traditionally the final reader of the summer and has been participating in the program for five years.
"Children's reading programs at home are extremely important to me," Johnson said. "That used to be me 30 years ago. ... You never know what spark you're going to light. You really can light a fire that otherwise would have been absent. Reading really helps get kids going."
This summer, Raising Readers hosted 10 free readings in Kendrick Park, with readers from various Sheridan businesses and organizations. Each reader, with the help of volunteer coordinator Rosie Buckley, picked a children's book to read to children, on average ages 3-6.
According to Christy Sanchez, a teacher at Marion Day Care, the children looked forward to Reading in the Park every week, as well as the craft chosen by volunteer coordinator Jennifer Betz to go along with that week's book. Sanchez said the children's favorite book was "Adventures of Cow, Too" by Lori Korchek, which was read by Albertson's grocery manager Zachariah Bearden.
"The kids absolutely loved that book. They came back and kept wanting to read it three or four more times that day," Sanchez said.
Sanchez, whose daughter will be starting kindergarten this month, said she can see the difference reading makes in children's lives.
"My daughter hasn't even started kindergarten and she can already read and there are a couple of other little girls that are starting to pick up on words,"?Sanchez said. "Any time anybody reads to (kids), their imagination just takes off."
Reading in the Park supports Raising Readers in Wyoming's larger mission of encouraging parents to read to their young children.
Raising Readers — adopted by the Governor's Early Childhood Development Council in 2002 — provides new books to children at well child health care visits at ages 2, 4, 6, 12, 15 and 18 months and ages 2-5. By the time they enter kindergarten, a child will have received 10 books.
Over its 10-year tenure, Raising Readers has distributed 237,437 books across the state; 2,514 books were distributed in 2011 in Sheridan County alone. Participating medical offices in Sheridan are: Goose Creek Pediatrics, Northeast Wyoming Pediatrics Associates, Dr. Michele Bennett and Sheridan County Public Health.
Raising Readers has been a non-profit organization since 2005. According to executive director Jolene Olson, the program is funded entirely on donations from businesses and individuals, as wells as several fundraisers and other events. Major donors from Sheridan include Emit Technologies, B.F. & Rose H. Perkins Foundation, Homer A. & Mildred S. Scott Foundation and Herbert & Dorothy Zullig Foundation.
Olson said the idea behind the program is to have medical professionals advise parents to read to their children, thereby promoting brain development.
"If you have a medical professional, in a sense, prescribe reading to children, parents are more likely to follow that advice," Olson said. "This is a health care, brain-based program."
Olson said the choice of book distributed at each well child visit is based upon the guidelines set forth by two University of Wyoming professors' research regarding what children need at a given age. For example, at two months, the goal is to endear parents to the book, whereas at 15-18 months, rhyming and animal sounds become the focus and at 4-5 years, books should be entertaining.
Dr. Mary (Genie) Bowers, M.D, with Goose Creek Pediatrics said Raising Readers is something her office is "very enthusiastic about."
"This is one of the most effective ways to communicate to parents that may not otherwise understand that children love books and they love to read," Bowers said. "Children really enjoy books and take to them very naturally.
"There are some programs out there that are questionable and people are always going to question the research, but this is one of those things where there is no question it's a good idea,"?Bowers added. "Parents of kids love it.?It's a neat program and parents are really proud of their children wanting to have books."
Those involved in the program, from doctors to parents, readers and volunteers, say the reason Raising Readers is so important is because it engages children's imaginations.
"Writers are just readers who took the next step," Johnson said. "To me, getting imaginations going is just the most amazing thing in the world. That's what it's all about."
Information from: The Sheridan (Wyo.) Press, http://www.thesheridanpress.com/