Hello, I Love You
The Storybook Project Is All About Connecting Families
Eye on LSSI, Fall 2008 ( Download PDF of entire publication)
The last time 9-year-old Najee saw his father, Dustin, snow blanketed just about everything in Rockford.
From the church parking lot across the street and the sidewalks in front of the bank, diner, abandoned storefronts and needle exchange just down the block from his apartment to the playground equipment at 100-year-old Nelson Elementary where Najee went to school, snow covered it all.
Now, it’s the middle of summer. The snow’s been gone for months. Dustin, too.
It’s early evening and Najee’s in his room. He slides a CD into the open tray of his Playstation2 that is connected to a small color television on his dresser. He fusses with the game controllers for a minute, then grabs a book and hops on his bed.
His mother, Kizzy, stands in the hallway outside of her son’s room and looks on. She has a smile on her face, but her eyes betray a hint of sadness.
The CD in the Playstation2 begins to run. Yet, there’s no blast of pixilated color on the television screen.
And instead of music, a deep voice comes out of the speakers and fills the room.
“Hi Najee, it’s your dad,” the voice says. “Today I’m going to read you a book called ‘God’s Story.’”
Najee opens the book to the first page and follows along silently.
Keeping Families Connected
Dustin, 31, made the recording in the Winnebago County Jail. He’s been locked up there since February, awaiting trial on a gun charge.
The jail is the largest part of the new $142 million Winnebago County Justice Center, which is the largest building in downtown Rockford, the state’s third-largest city.
To get voters to approve the 1 percent sales tax increase that would built the jail, county officials also had to promise that some of the money would go to alternative incarceration programs and programs that can help inmates better themselves.
There are more than a dozen programs now, but only one that lets a child get a bedtime story from his incarcerated dad or mom.
It’s called the Storybook Project.
A program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), “Storybook” is part of its Prisoner and Family Ministry. It’s one of several LSSI programs focused on keeping family bonds between inmates and their families as strong as they can be.
The concept is simple. Volunteers bring books that have been donated to LSSI and recording equipment to a participating correctional facility. Inmates who sign up for the program and are approved by the correctional facility meet in a common room with LSSI volunteers and choose a book, or two, that they would like to give to their child, or in some cases, grandchild, niece or nephew.
“The reason I do it is to keep families connected,” says Ruth Fairchild, coordinator of the Storybook Project for Winnebago County. LSSI is able to offer Storybook at the Justice Center because of a grant it receives through AmeriCorps. LSSI is just completing the second year of a three-year grant cycle that funds AmeriCorps members in Rockford, Chicago, Marion and Springfield. Created to provide community service opportunities across the country, AmeriCorps expands the reach of Prisoner and Family Ministry to now include Rockford. In addition to Storybook, AmeriCorps members help people coming home from prison, visit at the Winnebago County Jail and RIC Center (probation center), and help families coping with the incarceration of a loved one.
Fairchild’s background is in education. Before she took charge of the local Storybook program, she spent 14 years as a permanent substitute teacher for the Rockford School District.
It was in the school district, she says, that she saw the difference a strong family unit could make on the life of a child.
She always worried about her students whose parents were locked up. So, on her own time, she’d often go to the old Winnebago County Jail and visit the mothers of the children in her class.
“I would tell the ladies that I would continue to come here and visit them as long as they tried to do something to improve their lives while they [were incarcerated],” Fairchild says.
“If it was drug treatment, good. A GED, good. But it had to be something.”
When the opportunity to be a part of the Storybook Project came along, it was a natural fit for Fairchild. The inmate chooses a book then walks to another room where another volunteer sits at a table. The two sit at either side of a table with a recording device set between them.
This afternoon, the volunteer in charge of recording is Kurt Brown, one of seven AmeriCorps members who works with Fairchild.
Brown, 50, makes sure the room is quiet and the reader is ready. After a quick countdown, he hits “record,” and the inmate begins speaking.>
“Most inmates don’t start reading right away,” he says. “They like to start their CDs with a ‘hello’ and an ‘I love you.’”
Some readings go better than others. Literacy is a challenge for many in the inmate population, but Brown is patient.
“I do this because it makes them happy,” Brown says. He found out about Storybook through his volunteer work at Rockford’s Zion Lutheran Church.
“For me, it’s really about the happiness you bring to people,” he says.
At the end of the recording session, the inmates are taken back to their cell pods. But the books they chose and the recordings they made are sent to their children.
Storybook Offered at 17 Institutions
LSSI began Storybook in 1995 with one institution in Jackson County.
Now, LSSI runs Storybook programs at 17 correctional institutions across the state: three federal prisons, five county jails and nine state prisons. Winnebago and Sangamon County jails and the Pontiac Correctional Center are the three latest expansions, with programs begun earlier this year.
Each program is a little bit different, says Gail Beard, director of the Storybook Project.
Some, like Winnebago County’s, meet weekly; some every two weeks; others less. Who gets to participate in Storybook is chosen by the correctional institution; LSSI has no role in deciding who qualifies and who doesn’t.
“It’s solely up to the institutions,” Beard says. “They don’t allow child abusers or someone with an order of protection for their child against them to participate. They investigate whether the inmate qualifies to participate because they are a parent or a grandparent. Some facilities require the inmate to be involved in parenting classes to qualify to read.”
Beard says the initial reaction to Storybook was mixed. There were a lot of questions, particularly in the early years, and some institutions initially didn’t want to participate.
But that has changed.
“We’re at the point now where we’re being asked to come,” she says.
Perry Weatherford, the Winnebago County Jail’s coordinator for alternative programs, is a Storybook convert.
He hadn’t heard of the program when it was first proposed. Now, he says, it’s one of the most successful at the jail.
“You know what surprised me, or I should say what I didn’t expect, was after being in Storybook, many of the inmates signed up for additional programs that we offer,” he says, including enrollment in literacy and GED programs.
“Maybe it’s because [the inmates] want to learn to read better for their children, or it gives them a reason to value education,” Weatherford says. “But that’s what we’ve noticed. They participate in Storybook, and they want to do more.”
‘I Just Want Him to Hear My Voice’
This afternoon, the jail classroom has about a dozen women in it. A little more than half of them are wearing aqua blue jumpsuits the county gives to its inmates. The other women, in street clothes, are Fairchild and her volunteers. They make sure the former fill out the address forms where they want the books and recordings sent, and answer any questions the incarcerated women might have.
“Look guys, a turtle,” says a thin, blonde woman who thrusts a skinny paperback book with a drawing of a turtle on the cover into the air. “I found it; I found the one.”
The woman is 32-year-old Sherry, and she’s a mother of four.
Like many drug users, Sherry burglarized homes to support her addictions, and she also turned to prostitution. Her most recent arrest is for “soliciting rides on a roadway.” The judge sentenced her to some jail time and a treatment program.
“Turtle” is the nickname she gave her 7-month-old son, Dalton. That’s who this book and the recording she’ll make in a few minutes is for.
“I mean, I just want him to hear my voice, you know?” Sherry says. “I just think it’s important that he knows mom is thinking of him, even though I’m here.”
All in all, about 20 women get to pick and read books this afternoon.
And one male inmate does, too.
Dustin is built like a football middle linebacker. He has a shaved head, full beard, tattoos on both arms and his neck. When he smiles, he reveals a row of silver teeth.
His criminal record stretches back at least to 1994 when he was 18 and was arrested on an aggravated battery with a firearm charge.
He says he got involved in Storybook after “hearing about it on the deck” from some other inmates. Dustin has five children, and each of them gets at least one book and recording from him.
He usually picks books of Bible stories. The one he has today is about Jonah and the whale. It’s for his 6-year-old daughter, Honesty.
“Yeah, I think about [my children] all the time,” Dustin says. “Like when I’m reading the book [into the recorder], I just imagine them sitting there on my lap and they’re with me, just listening.”
He calls 9-year-old Najee his “little genius” and guesses correctly that Najee’s favorite Bible story is of Noah and the ark.
His jury trial on the gun charge starts in a couple of weeks. If found guilty, he’ll go away for a long time.
Dustin says he’ll be found not guilty at trial and he’ll be a free man in a couple of weeks. After his release, he wants to go to a Bible college and minister to kids who are in danger of ending up in the same shoes he’s walked in for so many years.
“I think I’ve been a good father. I could have made better choices though,” Dustin says. “I hope I can be there to teach my kids to do what I did good and not the other, because I haven’t always been around for them.”
In the meantime, Dustin said, he’ll continue to read books to his children.
“It’s all about that connection,” he says. “They can hear their dad’s voice and it’s a connection … To be honest, it’s a blessing.”