A collaborative family literacy project between Hennepin County Library and Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility
Working with community volunteers, the Hennepin County Library (HCL) and Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (ACF) created the Read to Me program to teach residents at the facility the critical importance of reading to their children. Research consistently shows that reading to a child is the single most important factor in creating a literate adult. A significantly large percentage of ACF residents, both in the Men’s Section and the Women’s Section, have not experienced in their childhood the joy of a loving parent or adult reading to them from birth on. The lack of this experience leads to a lack of awareness of the strong positive impact reading has on children’s literacy development and school readiness, and additionally the lack of confidence about how to go about reading to their children. Many ACF residents have low literacy skills and reading disabilities, undermining their confidence about reading aloud.
ACF residents frequently have little knowledge about age-appropriate books and the various learning, growth and developmental stages of their children. Many parents, especially fathers, have no recollection of being read to as children.
When a parent is incarcerated, children can go through many stages of loss and grief, and often lives with the fear that their separation may be permanent. Most often, the resident feels powerless to help the child even if he or she realizes that these fears exist in the child. The Read to Me program uses books and reading to build bridges between young children and their incarcerated parents.
Corrections staff observed that children coming to the jail to visit parents were usually not an important part of the visit. The child or children simply stood by while the adults talked via telephone through the glass separation wall. The resident needed help to view the child’s presence differently and to learn ways to relate.
In 1996, ACF staff extended an invitation to Hennepin County Library, a separate county department already involved in providing adult reading materials for the residents, to supply a large number of children’s books for use in the lobby for children to share with their parents during visits. The intention was to foster positive, meaningful interactions between parent residents and their visiting children. The program expanded into an intensive 10 month series of classes focusing on the pleasure and importance of reading with young children.
The Read to Me program has four main objectives:
1. To model for the resident through discussion, video, reading aloud and personal experiences the absolute importance and impact reading has in the lives of children, and the potential the library holds for parents and children as a source of lifelong learning and support.
2. To provide a safe place for the resident to talk about his or her own experiences with reading or lack of reading and to share the loss typically felt by the lack of the parent-child reading experience.
3. To provide a vast cross section of excellent books for children of all ages and diverse backgrounds for the residents to examine and read.
4. To give many opportunities to the residents to practice reading children’s books, learn about age-appropriate books, and choose and record new books as gifts for their child.
5. To use books as the vehicle to provide a positive connection between parent and children during the parent’s incarceration.
The program consists of a series of two 90-minute sessions in the Men’s and Women’s Sections scheduled over consecutive weeks. These series are repeated twelve times per year in each section. Upon completion of the course, the resident receives a certificate of accomplishment.
Activities during the series include:
• Opportunities to see and discuss outstanding children’s books, including old favorites and new titles representing the diversity and ages of the children involved.
• Suggestions from library staff and volunteers on how to make reading aloud fun. Providing the opportunity for residents to practice reading aloud.
• An educational video about early literacy and family use of libraries is shown to stimulate discussion.
• Opportunities for ACF residents, volunteers and library staff to discuss favorite childhood reading memories and current reading interests.
• Information about resources and services available in the public library and encouragement to the ACF residents to consider the library as a place to visit when they are back with their children.
• Opportunities to choose an age-appropriate new book as a gift for each of their children and make a recording them reading of the story. The books and CD are mailed to each child with a photo of their parent reading the book.
The project is coordinated by the HCL Corrections Librarian and ACF Volunteer Coordinator. Each session is facilitated by a HCL librarian and supported by trained community volunteers.
At the completion of each series, the resident participants are asked to complete an evaluation. Based on the compilation of all the evaluations, the residents:
• Learned information about children’s brain development, and the need for stimulation.
• Found multiple uses for the information they had learned, including:
– How to choose books for children and use them to support pre-reading skills (sound awareness, vocabulary development)
– How to use the library for multiple purposes
• Experienced the positive effects of being read to, even as an adult.
Residents consistently make positive comments about the Read to Me program. For example:
“It is a very good and touching program. It makes a father know that it is important to read and tell stories to kids – I hadn’t realized how important it is. I’m planning on keeping doing it when I get out.” – George
“I hope my daughter keeps that recording and book forever! Maybe for her kids” – Kevin
“I think it is a very good and important program that they should do in high school so more parents know ways of raising their kids better” – Terri
Based on reports submitted by volunteers and librarians throughout the year, they:
• Observed that residents were amazed at the effect reading to their children can have.
• Reported that residents were highly interested in learning about age- appropriate books and how to choose them.
• Stated that residents wanted to be better parents.
• Stated that as volunteers, they felt “greatly rewarded” by being involved in the program.
The Read to Me program empowers residents, enabling them to acquire and use information in one of the most important ways possible in their lives — to prepare their children to become literate. The program affords the opportunity for residents to bond with their children, helping the children gain self-esteem and self-worth from their parents. As parents, the residents can make a difference like no one else can in their children’s lives.
This is a successful program! Every year, 48 sessions are provided to teach residents new ways for improving their lives and the lives of their children. The program is measured through evaluations completed by residents and caregivers.
The Read to Me program received a National Association of Counties Achievement Award in 1999 and the American Library Association’s Marshall Cavendish Excellence in Library Programming Award in 2005. It is an ideal model that can be replicated in many other correctional facilities.
Just a few comments from parents’ evaluations reveal the impact of the program:
“I’m grateful to have been able to send my actual voice home to comfort the children. It was also a thrill to meet a real children’s author (Jon Scieszka who was presenting several public programs for HCL spent an evening with residents in the Men’s Section). The volunteers were excellent!” –Nickolas
“The people that come here help us send our kids love, and that’s one of the most important things to life.” (no name)
“I love it, at first I was like I can’t do this, but after it was over I really felt good inside. I really enjoyed it a lot I thank you so much!!” – Jonah
Interview with residents who participated in Read to Me:
Resident A: “My favorite book was…I believe it was Curious George. You know just the pictures and the bright colors are what attracted me to the book and the simple storyline and whatnot. It was just that was what I liked about the book.”
Resident B: “My favorite book…well, not just my favorite, it scared me was Where the Wild Things Was. And it’s still sort of scary, but that’s the one I sent to my son. So I don’t know if he’s gonna get scary out of it like I did. But it used to scare me, but then as I got bigger I liked it, and I was always looking for the book. So that was my favorite book-Where the Wild Things Was.”
Resident C: “I guess I did the Read to Me for my grandson. And he’s two now. And he gets a riot out of it. He plays it all the time. I think the tape’s gonna be worn out by the time I get out. And he likes the books that I sent definitely too. All the more books a child can have the better. Some of them were…really neat to me was a couple of the books…one of the books that I sent was the same book like the very first book I ever got. This program made it available for me to remember that memory of having that book. And I was able to send it to my grandchild. So that was really neat for me.”
Resident A: “I felt the Read to Me experience was a great opportunity to touch base with my child in the wake of my absence. Her response to it was a positive one. It kept me alive when I was unable to be there to read to her. And I feel that we was able to still make a connection, and that was the most important part. She thought I was trapped inside the radio or something.”
“She…immediately her eyes lit up, and she raced full-speed to the radio and bonked her head. She didn’t hurt herself, but she bonked her head thinking I was in there or something coming out of the speaker.”
Resident C: “Why I think reading is really important to kids is kind of like I said before the same thing as this whole experience is the more somebody can learn and further their education…reading kind of unlocks that experience to people that are able to read. And even if you’re so young that you can’t read even hearing it and getting the phonics down and that type of thing the sooner you’re able to read. And the sooner you’re able to read, the sooner you’re able to further your education. And become a successful member of society.”
Resident B: “I just encourage a lot of families, say if you’re a father and you’re not with your kids, it’s something to still do. Read a book to them. Read it…put it on a tape, send it to them, let the kids know you’re still there for them. They might want to hear this tape every time they go to bed. And they’re going to think about you even though you’re not there. Or either you’re going to be there. But I think it’s real fun to do.”
Resident A: “I just encourage others to take advantage of the program, because it was something that really benefited both parties you know. And it’s something that you know could be shared down the road even you know to look back upon it, when you know when you were unable…when the father was unable to be there. Just kind of a reminder to…you know you don’t want to be you know absent from the child you know you want to be there.”
Resident B: I never got a chance to read to my kids, but I finally got a chance to do it. And through this program I felt real comfortable with it. By me not being with my kids…and I was able to read to them. And that benefited me real good. And I was looking forward to seeing my kids that now that they see me reading. Not only did I want them to see me reading them stories, I thought about the library, how we can go to the libraries and they got the little read to me programs. So I sent my kids a note and their mothers…we not together, but I still get in touch with my kids…I sent them a letter to let them know when I get out, that I want to go to the library with them to some of these read to me programs. Cause there’s one right around the corner from them. So from there it start off real nice I can get a chance to be back with my kids and read some more books to them. Take them down to the library. It’s starting off like a new beginning to me, because I never read to my kids, and this program gave me a chance to do that.