Learning to read is a joy for children and their parents as a little one’s first sentences and their comprehension increase with their vocabularies. Sharing these moments can be challenging from afar, more so when the parent is incarcerated.
Miriam Lang Budin, head of children’s services at Chappaqua Library and children’s librarian Robbin Friedman, found a way to use books and reading to ease the pain of children who visit their mothers who are behind bars.
“About four years ago, I was invited to see preview screening of the film Mothers of Bedford (2011),” Budin told members of the Rotary Club of Chappaqua during its March luncheon.
The documentary by filmmaker Jenifer McShane details five incarcerated women at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. During the course of several years, McShane spoke with them, their children and families, the children’s caregivers, and prison employees and volunteers to understand parenting from a distance.
“It was an extraordinary movie about the women who are incarcerated in this maximum-security prison,” Budin shared. “Some of the women are pregnant when they arrive so they give birth at the prison. If they’re privileged enough, then they can keep their babies until the babies are two years old.”
Moved by the film, she “wondered how the library could help them in their heartbreaking situation and knew books were the perfect answer.” Research led her to Hour Children®, which runs family programs at the Bedford Hills facility and at the Taconic Correctional Facility.
This will be the fourth summer she and Friedman will read to children visiting their mothers, one component of the facility’s Summer Program. Local families open their homes to inmates’ children for one week each during six week-program, allowing them to spend time more time with their mothers as contact is otherwise by telephone or mail.
Rebecca Sussman, Teen Program Coordinator, Hour Children’s Center, explained the story time program, one of many for families. “From Sunday through Thursday–six times during July and August–children stay with host families in the area and visit their moms during the day,” Sussman explained. “Some of them (children) are siblings, some of them know each other during the years, and some come (to the readings) with their mothers,’ Friedman said. “We never know how many people will show up when we’re there; sometimes up to 36 people (mothers and children) attend.”
All programs take place in the visiting room, behind which is a children’s area that looks like a nursery, and where Friedman and Budin read to the children.
“The visiting room is open to any child of any age; (however), kids from ages 5 to 17 are eligible to be hosted by families during the summer. Their presence evokes a positive reaction in parents who are reluctant to participate. “That’s the goal: to get everyone involved,” Friedman emphasized. “Reading is a good way to get everyone engaged.”
How do they hold everyone’s attention given the vast age range? “We bring picture books or early readers and poetry,” Budin said, “as there’s not enough time to read chapter books or novels, and one child can read a poem or an older child can read to a younger child.”
One favorite is Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems by Marilyn Singer. The author’s poem can be read forward and backward, and the latter will have a different meaning. Another is We Are in a Book! from Mo Willems’ series.
“The book has lively dialogue and engages the reader,” Budin explained. Elephant Gerald and Piggie realize they are characters in a book that’s being read, and once they’re more at ease with this, they become upset that the book will end.
“Hello. Will you please read us again?” the characters ask whoever’s reading the book.
Budin and Friedman agree their efforts are well-received. “We get thank-you letters and lots of positive feedback from the families,” Budin said, adding, “sometimes we see families again the next year.”
Both are glad they found a way to work with the population and find it “fulfilling to serve people who would not otherwise have had the same opportunity,” Budin said. Each child who participates in the reading program goes home with a new, age-appropriate book to reread with another adult or by him/herself.
Those who are interested in offering books can visit http://hourchildren.org/. Families interested in hosting children for one week during the summer can contact Deb Rigano, Summer Program Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.