Volunteer imparts love of reading to moms, kids

“Oh the Places You’ll Go!”

That’s not just the name of a treasured Dr. Seuss book, it’s a prayer Margie O’Brien prays for mothers and children who attend Essential Baby Reads. She’s the instructor for the class on reading strategies at Essential Pregnancy Services (EPS), teaching young moms the value of reading to their children.

“As an educator, I’ve been a reader all my life. Reading broadens everybody’s horizons. It’s a way to experience different places, people and ideas,” said the retired elementary school teacher and librarian. “I think it is really something anybody can do to improve their lives.”

O’Brien started volunteering at EPS, a women’s resource organization with three Omaha locations, in 2014. She began teaching her course – a series with three classes each – about a year ago.

Students are from EPS’s clientele: pregnant women and mothers with children up to 18 months. She has given three series to date. About 14 young mothers are in each Essential Baby Reads class with 41 participating so far.

As a teacher, March 2 – Dr. Seuss’ birthday – or the school day closest to it, was among her favorites. On that day in 1998 the National Education Association created National Read Across America Day. The goal was to celebrate reading among U.S. youngsters to motivate them to read and create awareness of reading’s benefits. This year the celebration is March 1.

“I used to have a ‘Cat in the Hat’ hat when I was at school. It was a big day for readers and school communities, a celebration of reading and why we love it,” said O’Brien, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha. “It would get kids excited about reading. It’s that same excitement that I hope to instill in these young mothers.” 

In her class, O’Brien also shares strategies for making reading fun, including techniques for drawing readers and listeners into the story, such as modulating tonality and facial expression, follow-up crafts and other related activities.

Studies cite several benefits of reading to children. They include relationship development, larger vocabularies, improved school readiness, and enhanced memory and cognitive thinking skills. For example, analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment revealed the most significant factor for higher scores of 15-year-olds on standardized tests was that the test taker had been read to consistently when younger.

Hinke Jensen, EPS counselor and Learning and Development Programs manager, said she appreciates that reading facilitates harmonious relationships and healthy attachments between parent and child. “We have found that many of our clients didn’t have this experience in their own childhood,” she said.

O’Brien said she likes EPS’s incentive-based education. “I like the model of girls participating in their own education as a way to get things for themselves and their babies,” she said. Clients receive credits for participating in EPS services, which are used to purchase items they need in the EPS boutique.

The Essential Baby Reads class began after Jensen and O’Brien had a casual conversation. “We try to get to know our volunteers. I asked her about her background,” said Jensen.

O’Brien’s library and school experience and their shared desire to introduce the importance of early literacy to EPS clients led to the new offering in the EPS special class series. 

“Margie makes the experience of reading to children enjoyable and engaging. She is gifted in this,” Jensen said, adding that O’Brien’s message is: “This isn’t just another task to be completed. This is fun. This is how you build memories.”

O’Brien gives as many books as she can to her students. “If I’m telling them they should read to their baby, they need something to read. I collect board books, new or used in good condition. The more I have, the more I can give them.” Donations of board books are welcome at EPS’s 6220 Maple St. location in Omaha.

 “When I teach the class, I’m having fun. I want them to experience that fun and take that to their families,” O’Brien said. “Some parents say their kids won’t sit for this, and months later they come back and say their kids are asking to be read to.”


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