The “Alameda County Library “Start with a Story” Project was recently awarded a 2009 Achievement Award for Model Programs from the National Association of Counties (NACo). Below is an article from the National Association of Counties’ County Newsletter:
‘Start with a Story’ Program Promotes Literacy for Inmates’ Families
By Dan Miller
SPECIAL TO COUNTY NEWS
With little more than a book and a friendly face, Alameda County, Calif. has turned a potentially emotionally draining weekly ritual into a bright spot for dozens of children.
The Alameda County Library’s Start with a Story program supplies books to children waiting in line to visit incarcerated relatives. Now, instead of idly waiting for their turn at the jail, volunteers provide kids with free books and, if they request it, help reading them.
Lisa Harris, program manager for the county’s library system, hatched the idea for Start with a Story while working at a local jail facility to provide adult literacy services to the inmates. After seeing large crowds of kids waiting to see their parents or relatives, Harris took the initiative to go out to the jail one Saturday morning with a table and a selection of books.
“We had tons of kids who wanted to participate and were thrilled that they were able to get a book,” Harris said. “It sort of snowballed from there.”
By securing additional funding for the program and recruiting volunteers via Craigslist, Harris has turned her experiment into a regular event.
According to Harris, the wait for families to visit their relatives can be lengthy. Depending on when a visitor is selected by the lottery system, the visit can be an all-day affair with the kids cooped up in less-than-ideal environments.
“I’m really pleased that this program has become a real bright spot in this process,” Harris said. “We have many kids who look for us every week. It’s important that kids visit their parents while they’re in jail, and we want to make that a more pleasant experience.”
Harris’ goals for Start with a Story are twofold. Not only does she hope to make kids’ visits to the jails more pleasant, she also hopes to reduce illiteracy in these at-risk families.
“[We want] to expose kids who do not traditionally visit libraries to books. What we’re trying to do is stem the tides of illiteracy that run rampant through inmates’ families,” she said. “We call this program Start with a Story because we can’t do everything for these kids — they have multiple, multiple layers of issues. We do what we can do, so we start with a story.”
As a side benefit, deputies say that having the kids nestled in books has helped make the visitor’s area less hectic.
For Harris, reaching out to serve new and different communities is critical. To that end, every book distributed by the program features a bookplate with information about literacy programs at the library.
“I’m very committed and passionate about libraries being a part of the lives of people who don’t traditionally visit libraries. I’m very passionate that what we do shouldn’t be confined to the four walls that we work in.”
According to Harris, the program has sustained a robust staff of volunteers ranging from high school students to teachers to retirees. While the volunteers often cycle through (she has seen hundreds of individuals volunteer for the program), she maintains at least 30 at any given time.
Harris tries to have four people staffing the book station at a time. She’s been able to communicate with her core group by setting up a Facebook page for the program.
Shayne Callahan learned about the program through Craigslist and has volunteered with it for four months. She was drawn to the program by her desire to work with children.
“What keeps me coming back is the children,” she said. “They’re very friendly toward us. They really like meeting up around the table.”
As a volunteer, Callahan helps kids select an appropriate book by asking their age and making suggestions. If a child asks to be read to, a larger group of kids will often gather to listen.
“Reading is hugely important to me and it’s important to get these kids reading as much as possible,” Callahan said. “I don’t think a lot of these kids have a lot of books around.”
Harris said that the program has engaged frequent jail visitors by purchasing books specifically with their interests in mind. She recalls a pair of middle school-aged boys who were engrossed with Gary Paulson’s survival tale, Hatchet. Now, she says, she buys books with them in mind now.
The program’s success has inspired Harris to investigate translating the program to local homeless shelters.
(Model Programs from the Nation’s Counties highlights Achievement Award-winning programs. For more information on this and other NACo Achievement Award winners, visit NACo’s Web site, www.naco.org.)