I’m doing something different this week, taking a break from new books to talk about a powerful program from a non-profit group in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The organization is called the Children’s Literacy Network, and last month I had the opportunity to visit them in Ann Arbor during a visit to speak about picture books at Ann Arbor’s independent bookstore, Literati. Their Staying in Closer Touch program unites incarcerated parents and their children through children’s literature. It is one of many efforts on the part of the Children’s Literacy Network to give children there in Michigan equal opportunities to develop a love for reading and books.

The Staying in Closer Touch program is, in the words of Leslie Harrington, Children’s Literacy Network’s Executive Director, “a program that helps incarcerated mothers and fathers do what they have always done to comfort and nurture their children – read them bedtime stories, using their voices to love, reassure, and encourage them from miles away.” Volunteers in the program visit Michigan correctional facilities once a week to record mothers and fathers reading books they have selected to share with their child. The Children’s Literacy Network then mails the books, as well as a CD recording of the parent reading the story, to the child. Included is a note from the parent. “For many of these kids,” Leslie adds, “it is the only opportunity to hear their mom’s or dad's voice, because phone calls are too costly and the facility is hundreds of miles from home.”

Twenty years ago, Children’s Literacy Network had one volunteer visiting the local jail, Leslie explains to me. Today, they have forty volunteers working at local, state, and federal correctional facilities. When I ask about funding, Leslie explains that it comes entirely from “people who are sympathetic to the quarter of a million children in Michigan who go through every day with the weight of knowing their mother or father is living in a cell and might not be home for many years. We buy the books and pay for postage with hundreds of small donations. Sadly, there is a waiting list because the number of potential participants is greater than donations.”

While in Ann Arbor, I spoke to Bonnie Schramm, a former teacher and volunteer for the program, and I heard some moving stories about the program’s reach and effectiveness. In the name of spreading the word about the program, should other literacy non-profits be interested in starting something similar, I followed up with her via email about her experiences....

Jules: What do you think this program means to the inmates who are benefited by it?

Bonnie: Every time I leave the blocks where the inmates are housed, they express their gratitude for me being there and providing this opportunity for them to connect with their children: “Thank you for giving up your time to be here”; “Thank you for helping me connect with my children”; and “Thank you for coming back.”

Also, when an inmate, usually a first-timer, starts to read and the tears well up in their eyes, I acknowledge the tears and reassure them that I understand it is the reality that their child will be hearing their mommy’s or daddy’s voice that is overwhelming. Sometimes the inmate can pull it together, and sometimes we agree to send the book without the recording – and the next time they will be more emotionally prepared to read.

When an inmate joins me in our designated space, we never discuss the reasons for their incarceration or their “story.” Once the program is explained to them, they immediately transition their thoughts and emotions to connecting with their children. It is as if our time together transcends them to being with their child. It is common for some inmates to stay to hear the stories read by the other inmates or to go to the book cart and select a book to read while I am there. Because we offer classic books, as well as new literature, an inmate saw the book Corduroy and said, “I remember my teacher reading this book.” I believe it is these memories that want the inmates to stay and hear or read more.

I continue to be awed by the intentionality each inmate exhibits in selecting a book for each of their children. Before going to the book cart, I encourage them to think of the age of the child, their interests, books they may have read at home. At the cart, I observe each inmate picking up several books, carefully looking at them, choosing a book that is a good fit for their child/children. On occasion, I may be asked, “Do you think this is good for a nine-year-old boy?” Or: “My daughter is my princess. Do you have any books about a princess?” One time a father sent a book to his daughter. On my next visit to the jail, he shared that his daughter loved the book and asked if he could send her a Junie B. Jones book. He was thrilled to be able to fulfill her daughter’s wish.

On occasion, I have had an inmate about to be released say, “I love what you do, but I hope I never see you again.” I take this comment as a positive comment, regarding their decision-making once they are released.

Jules: How does your experience in education inform the work you do at your volunteer visits?

Bonnie: Although an educational background is not a requirement for this volunteer work, I certainly have found my experience in the classroom and as a reading specialist to be extremely beneficial. If the participants are having difficulty selecting a book, I am able to guide them toward selecting an appropriate book. We offer them a wide variety of genres they may not be familiar with, and I am able to introduce them to authors they have never heard of. Also, I always read [children’s books] to the group before they peruse the books themselves.  They are engaged in the reading, and it is very common for one of them to select that book as their book to send to their child. I model expressive reading and point out interesting parts of the illustrations. I encourage them to imagine their child sitting on their lap as they read the book and personalize the text by inserting the child’s name when appropriate.

Again, educational experience is not a requirement. A new volunteer will shadow the veteran volunteer for a couple of months. This gives the opportunity for modeling and discussion of how each volunteer can personalize their experience at their comfort level. Also, most volunteers are moms and grandmas, dads and grandpas, so they bring their personal memories of library visits and reading to their own children and grandchildren. Thus, the heart connection between the volunteer, the book, and the participants.

Jules: What advice would you have for non-profits wanting to start a similar program?

Bonnie: Initially, it appears to be such a basic program. And in many ways, it is. However, the behind-the-scenes is what makes the program successful. Ongoing financial sourcing for books; [knowing] where books will be stored; [having] mailing supplies, postage, recorders, CDs, volunteer support – all of this contributes to the success of the program.

Anyone starting such a program needs to do a lot of pre-planning to take a concise outline to the jail they hope to serve. Permission and support from the sheriff and staff are critical.

Research the possible number of inmates that may participate in the program, as this will determine the start-up funds needed. Recruit persons to facilitate the program. Research bookstores and non-profit organizations that can be financial resources. Connect with a grant writer to aid in sourcing financial aid. Connect with a person who is currently involved with the program to serve as a mentor for implementation.

Once the program is in operation with the commitment of the volunteers, the impact of the program can begin to take place within the jail setting.

Jules: What was one of your most memorable experiences as a volunteer for this program?

Bonnie: A young mother who appeared hard and sullen quietly chose a book for her daughter. As she started to read, she broke into tears. She looked at me with a softness and said,” This is the first time I have cried in two years.”

I can honestly say that each visit to the jail leaves me with a memorable experience. The stories are as numerous as the inmates. It is the power of the human voice connecting with loved ones through amazing literature.

I believe we have a responsibility to make a difference in the lives of others. As a volunteer with the Stay In Closer Touch program, my life has been changed as well.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at  Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.