by Anna Ferraro
We all know that there are rows and rows of offenders behind the bars of the Jacksonville Correctional Center. But across town, there is a group of individuals that recognizes something else – those offenders are more than just individuals in blue uniforms and behind bars. Those offenders are men with feelings and responsibilities. They are husbands, uncles, and more than that – fathers. Cut off from their fatherhood roles because of poor decision-making or misfortune, many offenders share that their greatest loss during incarceration is not seeing their kids grow up. The leaders of the Storybook Project at Faith Lutheran Church are on a mission to alleviate that problem, through, you guessed it, storybooks.
Armed with resources and buffered by training, a group of folks from Faith heads into the Jacksonville Correctional Center each month and provide the offenders with an array of storybooks to choose from. One by one, the offenders file through, choose their books, and read them into a recording device. Handing the book and the device back to a volunteer, the offender leaves with a smile, envisioning his child’s smile as he or she will later receive the book and the recording from their father – providing a poignant connection for both during their separation.
Where did this ministry begin? Beginning in 1995, through the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), the Storybook Project was born. Then, just six years ago, the Storybook Project came to Jacksonville, under the direction of Pastor Adam Dichsen. Learning about it while doing a fundraising biking trip across the state, his wheels started turning as he thought of the Jacksonville Correctional Center – “We need this program in Jacksonville.” Thus, in early 2012, Gail Beard, a member of LSSI, came to Faith and gave the congregation an overview of the project. And so, they began navigating the daunting applications required to work in a correctional facility. It took six months for the necessary paperwork to be processed and the backgrounds checks to be completed. But at the end of those six months, an enthused group of volunteers was equipped and ready to head into the correctional center – led by Renee Leifheit and Sharon Zuiderveld.
Zuiderveld shared, “We were very excited to start this program in Jacksonville. … Other state prisons had the program, but we were starting it from scratch [here]. We felt like it was needed, and we stepped up to meet that need. We were all pretty nervous when we went in the first time, even Pastor Adam. But we immediately saw that the men we worked with are so grateful.” Leifheit added, “Now, I get excited to go in. I could do it every day. We go just once a month, and I wish we could do more.”
Looking back, Leifheit shared, “In that first year, we had to be accompanied by Gail, and given the equipment and books to get the group going.” But within one year, the motivated and enthusiastic group at Faith was operating independently, saying, “We decided that we enjoyed this enough after a year, we were financially able to purchase the equipment. We still report to LSSI, and show them what we’ve done, but we’re fully trained, and we pay all our own way.” Besides one wintry day several years ago, where the temperatures were sub-zero, the volunteers have never missed a month of taking the Storybook Project into the prison.
Zuiderveld shared some of the details of the touching monthly event, saying, “When they group of offenders comes to meet us, they take as much time as they want to select a book. They’re very careful about what they choose. For that reason, we pick out and bring very nice books.” After selecting, they fill out an envelope of where the book is to be sent. Then they go to a table where a volunteer gets them set up to record. They can leave a message at the beginning or the end of the recording for their child. Once they have finished their recording, we thank them, and they leave. Then, we take the book, burn the audio file to a CD, and send it all to the child. It’s not ever sent to mother or the grandma, it’s sent to the child.” Leifheit explained, “It’s meant to be a program that maintains the relationship between a father, uncle, or grandfather, and the child.”
The volunteers and offenders both put a lot of thought into the project. Zuiderveld shared, “We bring a variety of book for infants, toddlers, easy readers, picture books, fiction, non-fiction, and chapter books.” They source them from their personal libraries, donations from the community, garage sales, resell shops, and if needed, brand new. Leifheit added, “We try to take in holiday and seasonal themes, as well. Those are always the books that go first!” She continued, “The guys really take it seriously. You can see them debating over the books as they try to choose theirs. Some of them will sing their book into the recorder, if appropriate. They may speak as the characters in different voices. Some start to read, and they fall apart and cry. Sometimes they make us cry. We’re not allowed to ask them questions, but some dish out part of their story.” There are two offenders that have become official volunteers with the project. Keeping track of when the group from Faith is going to visit, they set up the tables in the book room and prepare for their arrival. Leifheit added, “They sit there the whole time with us, and help explain the system to the newcomers. It gives them a sense of accomplishment; they know that they’re needed.”
Each month, the average of six Storybook Project volunteers help 40-50 offenders record storybooks and messages for their children. Here, Leifheit shared with tears in her eyes, “The messages they write to their kids are so inspirational- ‘do your best in school, respect your teacher.’ They’re really trying to leave a positive impression on their kids. It’s a really touching thing to be a part of.” Through the months of storybook recordings, many of the offenders count down their remaining prison sentence with the Storybook Project volunteers, saying, “only three more book recordings (three more months), and then I get to go home.” When one offender finished his term, the volunteers learned that he had a job lined up upon his release. The congregation at Faith put together funds of tools he would need, and gift cards to go and buy supplies for his job. Leifheit shared, “He came here the day he was released to pick up the bucket of tools, and he got his picture taken with Sharon. He cried when the chaplain told him we were going to help him.”
Another touching memory was one Christmas when they group came equipped with Christmas books. At the prison, 90 offenders had gathered to record stories for their children. After the recording sessions in the prison, the volunteer group headed back to Faith where they wrapped each book in Christmas wrapping paper before mailing them to the children. During this same Christmas visit to the prison, Leifheit shared, “We also brought some sheet music for the guys to sing. One of the two guys that came in and helped us asked, ‘Can I play the piano for you?’ He said, ‘start singing something.’ Sharon picked a carol, started singing, while he closed his eyes and listened. Then, he started playing. He told us he was the son of a Baptist minister, and growing up, he played every instrument. He couldn’t read music, but he could play anything he wanted in any key. Ever since then, if we are doing our book distributions in the large room with the piano, he’ll go in and play, and ask, ‘did you hear that?’” More than one offender has given back to the volunteers in the form of music. Leifheit shared, “We’ve been invited to a thank you reception for volunteers in the area, where they have a catered meal, and we get to sit and eat with the offenders. At the end of the dinner, the offenders put on a concert for us – piano, drums, guitar, choir, and presented their practiced music. I will never forget or miss that event.”
Leifheit shared a very poignant and personal memory of an offender who was extremely nervous to make his recording. She shares, “I could see that he was really hesitant and shaking with his book. I started recording, and he started crying. I asked him, if he wanted me to read a page for him. He said, ‘I just need to practice.’ I gave him some time and walked away. When he came back, he was still just shaking and nervous, so I asked, ‘Can I read it to you, and then you can read it into the recorder?’ I did that, and then he was ready. That was so meaningful to him. It’s important for us to realize that they are people too, with sensitivities, and they care about their kids.”
While it takes time and commitment to navigate the 40+ pages of forms and complete all the checking and cross-checking to get into the prison, not to mention the time to maintain the ministry, the group from Faith is passionate about their work. Leifheit summed it up, saying, “It is incredibly powerful. I can’t put into words the impact that it has on these men. One man came up in tears saying that he would pray for this ministry. They look forward to this each month. In addition, some kids write books to send to their dads. It’s amazing in the way that it builds a connection and maintains a relationship between the dad’s and children while they are away from each other. It is a powerful way for these men who are in prison to still be a dad. They’re incarcerated. They put up a façade because they are around these other guys there. But then, some guys just melt when they’re reading to their kids. It’s incredible to see them step into their fatherhood roles, and it’s incredible for us to be a part of it.”