By Peggy Reisser | Photos by Lisa W. Buser
After his parents put him to bed as a child, Dr. Jason Yaun would lie there, reading by flashlight or the light in the hallway.
Now, Yaun, a pediatrician (HSC ’09), hopes to instill that same love of reading in the patients he sees. He is committed to caring for the bodies and the minds of his patients.
Yaun, 35, works as an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UT Health Science Center (UTHSC) and a physician in the general pediatrics department at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Born and raised in Memphis, he says he feels a calling to take care of the children in his hometown.
“It was during my pediatrics residency training at UTHSC, when I was trying to decide what to do from there and what to do with the rest of my life, that I really just felt I had a heart to take care of the children of Memphis,” he says. “So that led me to a passion of not just general pediatrics but advocacy and being involved in the community.”
Always an avid reader, he has transformed his personal passion into a community mission as a champion of early childhood literacy.
“My love for reading is something that was instilled in me at a very early age,” says the father of a daughter, 6, and a son, 10. “I think there are all these great literacy programs out there, but most of them focus on school-age kids, and that’s generally too late.”
He heard about Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989—at what is now Boston Medical Center—to give free books to children from infancy to school age through physician offices. “I was looking at all the literature, all the evidence behind it, and just got really passionate about it,” he says. “So, while I was still actually a resident, knowing that I was going to stay on as faculty here, I worked to get funding to start a Reach Out and Read program here in our clinic.”
Evidence from literacy programs, including Reach Out and Read, suggests benefits that last a lifetime, Yaun says: “Not only does reading give children communication skills and literacy skills, but it also serves as a buffer against adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress by promoting nurturing relationships.”
Now, through Reach Out and Read at UT Le Bonheur Pediatric Specialists, the outpatient resident teaching practice at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, all children from 6 months old to age 5 get free books chosen for them by their physicians during every well-patient visit.
Plastic tubs filled with books, sorted for appropriate age, language and content, line the walls of his office and are in the physician workroom. “The idea is the physician actually gives the book,” Yaun says. “It’s not like a sticker at the end of the visit. It is supposed to be brought in by the doctor. That way, the doctor is a trusted messenger and can give the message of early literacy.”
Parents receive instruction about the importance of reading aloud every day to their children and learn that, as their children’s first teachers, they are not only building literacy skills but also social and emotional skills.
“Really, we’re talking about building brains from the critical time from birth to 3 years old,” Yaun says.
Jon McCullers, chair of UTHSC pediatrics and pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur, says Yaun, with his quiet and analytical personality, has excelled at growing into his role as a leader, progressing from student, to resident, to chief resident, to faculty member and director of the resident clinic.
“At each stage, it has been this careful consideration prior to commitment, followed by exceptional performance beyond expectations,” McCullers says.
All pediatric faculty are expected to have an interest in academic pursuits beyond their clinical duties. “Through his early career experiences in the clinic, he developed an interest in early childhood literacy,” McCullers says of Yaun.
“Again, after a period of analysis and contemplation, he dove in. He is now becoming recognized as a leader in this field across the state and will eventually have a national profile—truly, a rapid success story in an important area and one of our most promising young faculty.”
Yaun also is working with community partners to expand Reach Out and Read in Memphis and has secured funding to launch the program at Christ Community Health Services.
Since 2015, Yaun has served on the board of Books from Birth, the Shelby County organization to promote kindergarten readiness and strengthen family bonds by providing age-appropriate books for all children from birth to age 5. That program and the national Reach Out and Read program offer assistance in getting the books to distribute to Yaun’s young patients.
“Reach Out and Read has a partnership with Scholastic (a company known for publishing and selling books) on a national level, so we get books at a very deep discount,” he says. Funding also comes from the Urban Child Institute in Memphis.
“We also have books in the waiting room that kids can read or that parents can read to their children,” he says. Those books come from book drives or from Books from Birth.
Yaun’s program accepts books donated for the waiting room. Those can be dropped off at the clinic at 51 North Dunlap, Suite 350, Memphis. Volunteers to read books aloud to patients, siblings and family members prior to clinic appointments also are welcome. For more information, visit lebonheur.org/ror.