No. 623



Every once in a while I see, read or learn about something that helps to restore my faith in humanity. For the sake of good mental health, we all need that from time to time. Even before I tell you what has bolstered my faith, let me talk for just a moment about a very important word in the English language. That word is compassion. There are countless ways we can express compassion for others (including animals), but my favorite, and the reason I’m taking a moment to share this, is that true compassion is doing something for someone else when we know there is no way they could ever repay us.
Such is the case with a group of 18 people who live in and around Cherokee Village, Ark. A little more than nine years ago this group, led by Pat Oplinger and Donald Heern, started something called “The Storybook Project.” With no help from the government, these people raise funds, purchase children’s books and travel four times a year to Newport, Ark., almost 100 miles away, and meet with inmate-parents at one of our state’s prisons. Over the past several years I have heard from inmates in 15 states who read one or more of my columns and have written to me, usually to tell me their story and how prison life had changed them.
However, during this time I had never given much thought to the fact that 1.5 million children have a mother or father in federal or state prison. This figure has grown in step with the swelling of our nation’s prison population. Incarcerated parents, like all parents separated from their children, miss the intimate daily acts of family love, such as reading a bedtime story. Enter “The Storybook Project,” and at this point I would like to be more specific. For me, it started with a letter dated June 4, 2007. One of my readers in Hannibal, Mo., had read about our “Bookcase for Every Child” project and sent the column to Pat Oplinger.
At this point Pat wrote the following words to me. She said, “As a retired educator with 39 years of experience in several capacities and on different levels of education, I joined forces with volunteers from the Cherokee Village area a little over nine years ago to establish ‘The Storybook Project.’ Mr. Don Heern, a richly experienced businessman, is the co-chair. We raise funds to buy quality children’s literature books, then take them to the Newport State Correctional Facility. There we work one-on-one with inmate-mothers and inmate-fathers to help them choose an appropriate book to read to their child.
“We later mail the new book and cassette tape to the child as a gift from their parent. The inmate-parents, their collective children, and the caretakers of these children are most appreciative. Our motto is to keep families connected through reading during their time of separation due to incarceration of the parent(s). Our goal, hopefully, like yours, will be rewards of lower crime rates, less illegal drug use and improved civility in our communities.” Pat goes on to say in a later letter that at the close of their May 2007 tapings they had worked with 4,766 inmate-parents and reached 6,334 of their collective children who had an average age of 5.7 years. The national average of a child with a parent in federal or state prison is 8 years.
Now you know why I said earlier that these people have helped to restore my faith in humanity. At this point, packages have been mailed to children living in 45 different states across the country. To help support the project, an unexpected and wonderful development this past year has been that more and more of the caretakers of the children send donations to “The Storybook Project” in thanksgiving for how it has impacted their family’s lives. And inmate-parents themselves are sending personal money in appreciation of being able to remain connected to their children.
Every once in a while, Pat, Don or one of the other volunteers will hear a question like this, “Why bother to enter prisons with this program?” Their answers, while not complex, are very important. They bother because studies show that inmates who remain connected to their families have a lower rate of recidivism and do not return to prison. They bother because most prisoners are eventually paroled. They bother, in part, because they see firsthand how the program promotes literacy and benefits the inmate-parents, their children, and their families as a whole.
If you would like to get involved, either with financial support or to start a similar project in your area, contact Pat Oplinger, The Storybook Project, P.O. Box 985, Cherokee Village, AR, 72525 or call her at 1-870-257-4865.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To support literacy, buy his book: “Learning, Earning & Giving Back.”)