Thanks to generous donations from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation and United Way, the Small TALKTM literacy development initiative will complete implementation in the Wellstar Kennestone Regional Medical Center market and create a model to expand the literacy ecosystem system throughout Wellstar Health System and beyond.
With more than 80% of brain growth occurring in the first three years of life, early language development is vital for literacy proficiency. Third grade is a critical milestone – by this time, children switch from learning to read to reading to learn. In the Greater Atlanta area, only 1 in 5 third graders are strong readers. Those who are not reading proficiently by this time are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and Black children and children who speak English as a second language are disproportionately impacted, according to the Cox Campus – Literacy and Justice for All initiative.
The Literacy and Justice for All initiative, a coalition of leading organizations such as the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, United Way of Greater Atlanta, Atlanta Speech School Rollins Center, Marietta City Schools and Wellstar Health System, is committed to creating a literacy ecosystem in Georgia and ensuring that youth have the literacy skills needed to succeed in life.
Through an initial grant from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, Wellstar Kennestone and its affiliated pediatric offices have implemented Small TALK and their OB/GYN offices will complete rollout of the program this fall. Leveraging learnings from Grady Health System’s Talk With Me Baby initiative, Wellstar’s expanded program supports children of all ages as they continue to learn and grow. Small TALK is designed to help families understand the ongoing importance of early language nutrition for healthy brain development and engage in meaningful, quality interactions that expand vocabulary, literacy skills and cognitive development. Wellstar is the only health system in Georgia to provide this level of literacy support throughout the entire spectrum of pediatric care from pre-birth through third grade and beyond.
Dr. Susan Staviss, a pediatrician with Wellstar, is one of the first physicians to integrate the Small TALK program into patient appointments. “The literacy ecosystem starts with parents and families even before a baby is born, and it continues throughout childhood,” said Dr. Staviss. “Starting with our tiniest patients, we make a point of talking to the child just as much as we talk to the parent or caregiver. Through our interactions and with resources and coaching, we help the whole family see how easy and natural it is to begin building literacy skills early.”
Small TALK teaches parents and caregivers to tune in to their child’s interests and what they’re doing as well as regularly ask open-ended questions to encourage responses with more than one word. By using complete sentences and complex vocabulary when speaking to children, the child begins to learn how to lift their own language and grow cognitive understanding. Talking, reading, playing and singing together help even the youngest children establish these skills.
Recently, Wellstar Foundation received nearly $1 million in additional funding from the Whitehead Foundation to finish implementing Small TALK across its broad service area and expand the program into neonatal intensive care units, prenatal and mother/baby care appointments and throughout Wellstar women’s health services. This support will also help Wellstar begin to share the Small TALK program and resources with other communities and health systems as a national model for early childhood development and literacy.
“Literacy is a key social determinant of health, and a healthier future begins with the health and well-being of our young people,” said Julie Teer, president of the Wellstar Foundation. “Ensuring our kids have access to the care they need has never been more critical than it is today. At Wellstar, we care for the whole family, and we’re there for every life milestone. The Small TALK program is just one of many ways philanthropy and partnership is helping us meet families where they’re at with innovative, personalized care close to home. We’re grateful to have partners like the Whitehead Foundation who are helping accelerate this important work.”
Through philanthropy and community partnerships like the Literacy and Justice for All initiative, the Wellstar Foundation is helping transform healthcare and fueling innovation and action to address the vital needs of Georgia’s diverse urban, suburban and rural communities.
To learn more about the Wellstar Foundation or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit If you’re preparing for the arrival of a new family member, you can learn more about prenatal care at To find a pediatrician to keep your child healthy, visit
Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders visits Small TALK program

Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders visits Small TALK program