Program supplies books to children visiting jail inmates

Alameda Newspaper Group – August 17, 2007

Sophia Kazmi

DUBLIN — Outside Santa Rita jail on a recent Saturday morning, it was business as usual.

Bored adult visitors were standing, some sitting, talking or listening to music, waiting for their names to be called. Depending on when their names got on the visitation list, the wait could last hours.

But this Saturday morning there was a little more life than usual.

Visiting kids, who normally would be standing with the adults, or maybe splayed on the ground playing video games, were checking out kid-friendly books like “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Ferdinand the Bull.”

Others huddled with volunteers reading stories. Some took books to their moms for a private story time.

The past few months, kids who must spend hours waiting to visit someone at the jail, have had more to look forward to thanks to librarian Lisa Harris.

The Start With A Story program was born when Harris realized just how much empty time kids spent in line.

Each visiting day she saw them queued up, and she thought, “There’s got to be something you can do with that population,” she said. “They are just standing there for hours at a time.”

Harris, the energetic Alameda County librarian in charge of the inmate literacy program, persuaded the county library system to give the program a try. With money scraped together for a summer’s worth of books, and permission to operate Saturday and Sunday mornings, Harris has created a simple but effective program thatmay be the first of its kind in the nation.

Each weekend morning the volunteers — Harris has about a dozen recruited from Craigslist — man a booth with books bought for the kids.

Each child can pick a book to keep, and volunteers will read it to them if they like. The goal is to improve literacy and get young children interested in reading.

“It’s very good, very positive, to know that they are out here supporting the family members and their kids,” said Nay Saecho of Alameda, who waited on a recent Saturday with her 3-year-old, Chuckie Colvin, who picked a book about kung fu.

The program has been well received by parents, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the Santa Rita jail, and most of all, by the kids who are getting the new, free books.

“Sadly, you do see a lot of the same kids each week,” said volunteer Kristin Speck, 29, of Dublin, who is greeted by waiting kids as “Book Lady.”

“They get all excited because they are going to get a book to read,” she said.

The program has only enough books to last through September. After that, Harris must find funds to continue. To make the books last, Harris has a policy of one book per child per visit, and parents must have to a child with them to get a book.

Besides getting kids interested in reading and improving their reading skills, Harris hopes Start With A Story will get children and families to visit the library. Each book given away has a name plate on the inside cover with information on how to get in touch with the local library and how to get help with reading and writing.

Harris said there have been many surprises since the program began in May. The program is designed for children from a few months old to 12 years old, but older children come and look at the books because they too get bored waiting in line.

Santa Rita jail can use the money it receives only for programs for inmates, said Sgt. Kevin Ary, who is in charge of the jail’s inmate services. Having volunteers come to provide support for the people waiting in line is a positive thing, he said.

“They’ll return to the line with a book they like,” Ary said. “The parents in line will read the book to them. Literacy is contagious.”

Reach Sophia Kazmi at or 925-847- 2122.