How Phoenix Librarians Are Bringing Joy to Banner Thunderbird Patients

By Alyssa Bickle

August 10, 2023

Phoenix Public Library just surpassed its one-year mark of sending librarians to Banner Thunderbird Medical Center to read aloud to patients, leaving each patient with their own book to keep. 

Initially started by accident, a program called Spoonful of Stories at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center brings joy and peace to patients receiving care at the hospital.

In June 2022, Becky Opalka, assistant branch manager at Phoenix’s Cholla Library, visited Banner Thunderbird to give out information regarding the summer reading program

Opalka spoke with Jodi Rall, the pediatric academic coordinator for school services at Banner Thunderbird, who wanted to find a way to get librarians into the hospital to interact with patients. 

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By the next month, librarians were in hospital rooms reading to pediatric patients.

“It has just taken off like wildfire,” Rall said. Librarians now read to babies in neonatal intensive care units, and Banner Thunderbird has approved the program to move into the adult patient rooms. 

“These little ones, even though they’re not listening to the words and actions of the story, they’re still hearing someone’s caring voice, which is so important,” Rall said.

Eight librarians visit Banner Thunderbird for a few hours every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to read to patients anywhere from five to 30 minutes, Rall said. 

“I think it’s important for parents to know too, when their kid is alone like that [in the hospital] they’re not really alone,” Opalka said.

All librarians wear personal protective equipment when needed and complete volunteer paperwork and background checks, said Rall.

Creating an Impact 

Erica Magana’s 3-year-old daughter, Alaina, stayed at Banner Thunderbird for several months to receive treatment for leukemia—and she was the first child that Opalka read to. 

Later on, Opalka happened to visit the same day Alaina had her last chemo treatment and was released from the hospital.

“That was such a joy to see because I really got to know the family over the course of a few months and had just spent a lot of time with her, and to be able to see her get better and be able to go home,” Opalka said. 

Spoonful of Stories gave Alaina the opportunity to enjoy time with others, instead of being alone in a room, Magana said.  

“She got excited… to go through the pages and talk about what she sees in the pictures. She can’t really read, but she’ll talk about what’s on the pictures and then go through the pages,” Magana said. 

The librarians leave each patient with their own book to keep—and for some, it is the first book that belongs to them. 

“I was a reading teacher for many years, so that’s a really big thing for me. I love that sometimes we’re the ones that give them their very first book,” Opalka said.

The librarians have read to all ages, from babies only a few weeks old, up to teenagers—who tend to be the ones most enthusiastic about hearing a story, Opalka said. 

Benefit to Families

Parents that bring their children to the hospital are often stressed out, and they get a moment of relaxation when the librarians come in, Rall said. 

It helps parents see the importance of reading to their children and feel more comfortable in doing so, Rall said.

Many librarians are professionals with degrees in education, so they are able to give parents extra pointers on how to help their child with reading at home and what kinds of books to pick out, Opalka said.

In the emergency department, the room is often on edge, but the whole atmosphere is changed when librarians enter, and everyone is smiling when they leave, Opalka said. 

“You can see how passionate they [the librarians and hospital staff] are, and it’s not just a job for them, they are just so dedicated and proud,” said Mitzi Castillo Martinez, senior marketing and public relations specialist for Banner Health. 

Library Resources 

A number of organizations and nonprofits support Phoenix Public Library in this program—First Things First provides board books for small children, and the Starlight Foundation has donated books to leave with patients, Opalka said. 

Inside every book that the librarians leave with patients is a pamphlet with library information inside.

This includes information about the summer reading program, eCards to read library books on smartphones, and other resources.

Each time Opalka leaves a patient’s room, she tells them she wants to see them at the library when they get better. 

“There’s more to it than just kind of going in and giving one story,” Opalka said. “We want to make sure that as many people across our community have the most access to what the library has to offer.”

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  • Alyssa Bickle

    Alyssa Bickle is a multimedia reporter for The Copper Courier. She graduated from ASU's Walter Cronkite School in May 2024 with degrees in journalism and political science and a minor in urban and metropolitan studies. She has reported for Cronkite News and The State Press.

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