former director of the Jacksonville Public Library
When I retired, I knew I’d like to become involved in a few volunteer projects, preferably ones that combined my love of reading and my love of people. But I never expected to become involved in a project new to Jacksonville. Did you know that there is a population of nearly 1000 right here in our community, isolated and confined, yet needing our attention? My new project was to take me right out of my comfort zone and place me in a medium security correctional center!
With input and inspiration from Gail Beard, coordinator of the Storybook Project through Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, I learned that, although many of the Illinois Correctional Centers had the Storybook Project in place, it had never been implemented in Jacksonville. Pastor Adam Dichsen, of Faith Lutheran Church, had heard about the project and brought it to our attention, thinking that a few in our congregation might like to pursue it. That sparked my interest and this is now a regular commitment of mine, as well as a faithful group of volunteers.
The Storybook Project provides childrens books to offenders at prisons throughout the state, from Dixon to Vienna. It is one of many programs included in the Prisoner and Family Ministry of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. According to their FY2012 Annual Report, “over the past 15 years the Storybook Project has reached out to more the 32,000 incarcerated moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, and nearly 50,000 of their children—the ones who are most affected by the separation from their incarcerated parent. In addition to promoting literacy, the essence of Storybook is providing a way for offenders to send their voices and words of love to their children.” With the combined efforts of over 100 volunteers, five LSSI (Lutheran Social Services of Illinois) members, and support from numerous churches and individual donors, the program is one of the most valuable partnerships with the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Each month, I contact the Chaplain at JCC (Jacksonville Correctional Center), who puts out a notice so that offenders can sign up and participate. Each of the men selects a book to read to their child; our volunteers record their voice, burn the recording to a CD, then mail the book and CD to the child. We also encourage the men to write a short note to their child in the front of the book as well as greeting them on the recording before they read the book.
Most of the children’s books are donated to us, and, with funds from Faith Lutheran Church, we purchased two laptops, recording devices, and supplies such as pens, envelopes, and postage. It may seem unnecessary to mention these in detail except for the fact that every single item we carry into the Correctional Center must be accounted for. If 15 pens enter, then 15 pens must be accounted for at the close of our visit.
What is most significant about this project is the joy, the smiles, and the tears from the men who share with us the importance of providing for their children or grandchildren in this way. Many men have been moved from one facility to another, many have been incarcerated for many years, most are excellent readers, and all of them, every single one, pours over the books to find just the right one to read.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, I heartily encourage you to contact me to learn more about this valuable service to “the least of these” in our midst. I assure you, your life will be touched as much or even more so than the lives of these men.
Sharon Zuiderveld (217-243-6945) firstname.lastname@example.org