Nurse Practitioner Finds New Way to Serve the Community
For Kerri Ellis, a nurse practitioner in Beggs, Oklahoma, caring for patients goes beyond treating a case of the flu or managing diabetes. For Ellis, serving patients means looking at all the challenges they face and building a strong and supportive community.
That’s why she started a library.
It’s not a full-size, brick-and-mortar library, but a Little Free Library. The library is a weatherproof box outside her clinic that can hold around 100 books. Anyone in the community is free to pick up or leave a book anytime. This library is open 24/7.
“This is a medically underserved, primarily indigent community with no recreational things for children to do, and certainly no library,” Ellis said.
She has been caring for residents in rural Okmulgee County since she bought the CliniCo rural health clinic in 2001. In that time, her clinic has provided health services to more than 8,000 patients of all ages
“I saw a story about Little Free Library, which started in Wisconsin and the idea just caught fire with me,” she said.
Ellis said there are currently 50,000 Little Free Libraries across the world – in every state and in 70 countries – so it fills a gap in Beggs since the nearest library is in Okmulgee, 23 miles away.
Starting the library is closely tied to caring for the health of her patients, she said, citing a 2014 policy statement form the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommends parent-child home reading starting at birth and continuing at least through kindergarten to encourage brain development and socioeconomic wellbeing.
“Kids who have access to books are more prepared to start school. It literally changes the brain,” Ellis said. “Social mobility is improved just by something as simple as having a book, and 60 percent of low-income households don’t have a book available.
“As a nurse practitioner, you’re so often trying to fix a problem, trying to fix something that is already broken,” she said. “This a chance to fix something before it’s a problem. The data is clear – having books improves kids’ development and their lives for years to come.
The grand opening isn’t until Sept. 23, but the local community has already responded to the Little Free Library with enthusiasm, donating more than 1,800 books in four weeks. The books offer something for every age and every interest. Because of limited space in the weatherproof box, she has shelves of books inside her clinic and tries to switch books out every day.
The program has been such a success that Ellis and her staff are able to give a free age-appropriate book to every child they see for a regular well-child visit. She has also applied to partner with another nonprofit, Reach Out and Read, which could generate more resources and support.
“What we do as nurse practitioners – a lot of people don’t understand it, and it’s difficult to explain. We take a more holistic approach and try to make sure we’re looking at the needs of the whole person,” she said. “We don’t just say ‘take this medicine.’ We try to make sure they have the resources to get the medicine and know where to go to get it and how to use it properly.
“By providing these books, we can do so much good. There’s so much science behind the benefits of reading. It’s something the whole community can see and benefit from, and it makes a huge difference,” she said.
The community of Beggs, for its part, has embraced the new Little Free Library wholeheartedly.
“We started a Facebook page for the library, and parents are posting what they call ‘shelfies,’ pictures of parents and kids together with their books,” Ellis said. “It’s just wonderful to watch the kids ride up on their bikes every day to look through the books and pick one to take home.”
The Grand Opening celebration is planned for 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23 at CliniCo, 103 E Main St. in Beggs. Several local and state dignitaries are expected to attend the celebration, including state Sen. Roger Thompson, state Rep. Steve Kouplen and AONP Executive Director Benny Vanatta.
If you’d like to contribute, Kerri said she could use scholastic books or any bookstore gift cards to obtain new books for the pediatric-focused Reach Out and Read program. The CliniCo Rural Health Clinic mailing address is PO Box 478, Beggs, OK 74421.
She also encouraged other nurse practitioners to investigate the program for themselves.
“I would really love to see more NP-owned and run clinics start these programs all over our state, especially in rural areas,” she said. “It improves lives, including those of the library stewards!”