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HeartBound Ministries is a non-profit outreach organization that supports and equips
the work of Georgia prison chaplains and provides programs and resources to meet the needs of the prison community -- correctional staff, inmates, and their families -- changing the culture from one of crime and incarceration to hope and restoration. HeartBound believes that a prison system can be more than just a place where people "serve time." We believe a prison system can be a place where lives are healed, transformed, and restored.
For more information, visit their website here.
Books and Puzzles Bring Family Time to Prison Visitation (USA Today, 2019)
Little Readers Wins Grant (MSNBC, 2018)
RESOURCES & LINKS
Book deserts often exist when a parent or guardian is away from home and not able to provide a bedtime story for children. Find out what happens when parents are incarcerated and how a Georgia-based program brings books behind bars.
Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast featuring the innovative people and programs, who spread the love of books and reading culture in our nation’s high poverty areas. I'm Molly Ness, lifelong reader, book nerd, teacher-educator, and the founder of End Book Deserts.
Georgia has one of the largest prison systems in the United States – an estimated 75,000 children in Georgia have a parent in prison. For children whose parents are incarcerated, they too often miss the emotional bonding and education benefits of reading with a parent. The Little Readers program, created by HeartBound Ministries, places children’s books in prison visitation rooms so that kids, and their parents, can bond over books. They’ve also created a personalized recorded reading program allowing children to see their parents reading a book to them on DVD. I'm talking in this podcast to HeartBound Ministries President, Andrea Shelton, and Program Director, Emily Lloyd.
Thank you so much to our friend, Andrea and Emily, from HeartBound Ministries. They are chiming in today from Georgia. I’ve given the listeners a little bit of the background about the state of Georgia with incarcerated parents. So, I was hoping that I could turn the torch to you guys so you could tell us about the work that you do, particularly with Little Readers.
Okay. I’ll start us off. This is Andrea. We started a program in 2014 known as Little Readers program. What we do, is we go into prisons and we record incarcerated family members reading for their child. Since then, we’ve recorded around…I think we’ve reached around 7,000 children. The numbers continually update as we go into more and more prisons and do the recordings. This is really about meeting a need. Georgia is towards the bottom of the nation when it comes to literacy rights. We’ve got a lot of literacy desert, and we wanted to increase book access for these children. We wanted them to read more, because I believe that any interaction with a book is a positive thing, and it’s promoting literacy. We also wanted to help these children overcome the trauma of parental separation, because one thing that we, as an organization, have learned is that these are some of the most traumatized children in society. It’s one thing, you know, studies are showing that it’s even worse than parental death, or divorce, because there is a stigma attached. It’s one thing to go to school and say my parent died, or my parents are divorcing, but you really don’t want to go to school and tell somebody my parent got locked up. So, these children bear a lot of shame; they don’t have a lot of opportunity to process it; and when they can just look at their parent and know, hey, you look okay, you look healthy, you miss me, it does something for these children, and it does something for the parent as well.
So, I'm glad that you were able to talk about the emotional impact of having an incarcerated parent on children. I'm wondering if there are particular books that you use in your population, or is it that the parent chooses any book that they think is relevant in engaging with their child? How does the book choice work?
We have a wide variety of books. I think sometimes we just provide a “normal” book just so they can have that normalcy of their parent reading to them. I think we’ve got a few titles that talked about incarceration, but for the most part, they’re just normal books that you find at school or have on their bookshelf at home so they can have just that moment of normalcy with their parent, grandparent, or aunt, or uncle, that’s reading to them from the program.
And how frequently can parents get involved with this? Are they able to do more than one recording, or is it sort of a one-shot deal?
They are able to record as often as the prison will permit, and as often as our schedule will permit. What we’ve been doing over the past couple of years, thanks to some help from USA Today, the Gannett Foundation, we are able to embed the program in the facility, so we donate the equipment, the recording equipment, the books, and everything to the facility. Then, they can delegate the responsibility for recording to the inmate or volunteer or staff member, then they can conduct ongoing recordings, rather than wait for Emily, Andrea, Madison, or a volunteer to travel to their prison to do the recording. We like to provide that model in more and more prisons. So, they are sort of doing the recordings, and then they mail the SD card back to us, and we take it from there.
So, I'm interested how your work and your organization is received by folks running the prison system. Are you welcomed with open arms? Or, is there any resistance in this mindset of, you know, these are prisoners, they’ve made bad mistakes, and why should we be affording them these opportunities? Talk to me a little bit about how you’re received.
I think the experience, if we reach out and they’re willing to have us, I mean they’re opening us with open arms, excited. The press will come in. They’re excited for the women or the men to have the opportunity. A lot of times we work with chaplains; those are the ones that help schedule us. I mean it is quite a task on their end in corrections. There are a lot of moving parts in prison, and so it takes a lot of effort on their part. So, when someone is willing to have us come in, they welcome us with open arms.
Yes, I’ve been very pleased with the response from the Georgia Department of Corrections; they’re willingness to embrace the program to advance the program. We have been asked by other states, volunteers in other states, to bring the program, and I have been encouraged, I must admit, by the response from some other states when we say we want to come in and record, that’s an immediate shutdown for some states, and I could call them out by name. But, you know, we really don’t have the security risk, it’s really just about advancing literacy, and every video is vetted by us, so there’s really nothing for the facility to be worried about in terms of any of them being recorded, because all we’re doing is recording them reading for a child. It’s just that simple and it’s just that good.
Can you talk a little bit about your impact, both on the incarcerated parent, as well as, the child, who is the recipient of these literacy experiences?
Oh, we could talk and talk and talk about that. I think my favorite impact to watch is the impact it has on the parent, because…typically for the men. What we find with our men is most of them have never read to their child, and something goes off in them, just… It’s also like watching a (inaudible) at night. The feeling of, wow, I just did something very good. And you know, that feeling of helping others, that’s rehabilitative in itself. And so, we get to watch literacy being advanced and watch the parent engage often for the first time with their child in terms of reading. But, we get to see this altruism come out of people that society would think they’re very selfish people. I mean the inmates are takers, typically, in society, and this is an opportunity for them to give back, and that giving back is rehabilitative, and it’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch the joy on the faces of the incarcerated loved ones. And then, every now and then, a parent will send us a video or a survey of the reaction of the child, and that’s priceless. And Emily probably has a stack of those sitting in the office right now.
I have them right next to me. One of them says my daughter and her father’s relationship was never broken, but this program has helped strengthened their bond and shared faith. It says Little Readers has helped academically because of new vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. Another one that we received, it was nice to see his dad read his son a book and explain the pictures, it made my son smile and strengthen the bond between them. A lot of them saying the same things, just… My child gets to see their parent a lot more regularly than they would be able to, you know, being incarcerated. So, we receive surveys like that all the time.
A study from that, the American Bar Association, said that the average incarcerated parent lives 100 miles or more from their child. And when you factor in the cost of transportation, hotels, you know, even things like just having somebody for the vending machine when you visit your loved one, for families that are already typically living beneath the poverty level, I think 5% of our families in Georgia who have an incarcerated loved one that live at or below the poverty level, the cost are often prohibitive to visit your loved one. We can bring your loved one to you via video, it does wonders for the children.
I was so glad to hear you mention the dopamine. I actually attended a conference where one of the presentations I saw, looked at the brain listening to books read aloud, and we actually can see that there is a release of dopamine, that pleasure neurotransmitter. So, there is science behind what you are saying, you’re seeing it on the faces of both, it sounds like the parent and the child as well.
You know, it’s interesting. I actually have told the fathers before, particular if I have a group that I know where they’ve had a lot of issues with substance abuse. I say, you know, those same little receptors that are going off when you get a buzz from a drug or alcohol? Guess what? Those are going off right now when you’re reading a book to a child. So, next time you get that urge, go pick up a book and read for a kid. You know? And their faces light up like, really? But it’s true! There’s a lot of (inaudible). Right?
I love that. I love that. So, talk to me about two different things. First of all, how do people get involved with your program? And then, how is your program financially sustainable? I know you are recipients of a significant grant recently, but where does funding come from, and how might somebody, who is interested in this work start to grow it and replicate it in communities of their own?
So, funding is generally, we exist because of the goodwill of people out there that believe in literacy, and they believe in helping others. And so, the largest amount of our funding comes from just private donors. And then, we also do a lot of grant writing, and yes, we’re the recipient of a grant from USA Today. We’ve also received grants from Better World Books. And it’s just an ongoing, it’s an ongoing effort to raise money, and that’s the truth for anybody in the non-profit world. But thankfully, there are people that see the good and believe in what we’re doing. So, keep…we keep…we keep doing it, and hopefully we’ll never stop.
So, within the state of Georgia, specifically, our team, and we have a Little Reader coordinator, Madison, who will reach out to – and I'm pretty certain, Andrea, correct me if I'm wrong – we reach out to every prison in Georgia about our program, what it entails, the benefits of it. And, if they’re open and receptive to it, they’ll email us back and we will schedule a time for us to come down there and bring the program in, then train staff, or inmates, or volunteers to get the program running there. So, it really is, we reach out to facilities. Sometimes we have facilities reach out to us. They’ve heard of us, and we’re more than welcome to bring the program to them. I know recently we’ve had more people from what Andrea was saying earlier that have wanted to bring in the program to their state. And so, we just tell them kind of how that runs, and Andrea has, I think, has spoken more recently with people who have reached out to us. It will take a lot to grow this program nationally, and so we’re willing to train other states in their correctional systems. I always tell volunteers from other states, if you can let me talk to your warden, I promise we can convince him or her how good this is. And so, yes, we’d love to grow it. So, if someone is interested in bringing it to their correctional system, just contact us and we’ll see what we can do.
And for listeners out there who are interested, when you visit the website you will see links to this organization so that we can complete the conversation. The point, one of the major objectives of this podcast is to increase conversations about the work people are doing so that we can grow similar programs all across the country. And so, as we wrap up, I have to say that coming into this interview I was really expecting to hear a lot of positive impact upon children. As a doctoral student in my reading education program, I read an article, the title I believe was something along the lines of: What old bedtime stories means for children. And so, I was really expecting to come in and hear about how your program impacted children. And certainly, I was able to hear about some of that. But what was surprising to me is to hear how powerful of a program it is and has upon the parents, the mothers, and the fathers. So, thank you for sharing that side of the story. As we wrap up, a question that I ask of all of my guests, and the background behind this question is: In book deserts, my goal is to increase conversation and (inaudible) about books in general and reading life. So, I do that by asking my guests to tell me one book, and I know it’s almost impossible to choose just one, so one book, past or present, that has really had a profound impact on you, as a reader, or as a person. So Andrea, why don’t we start with you? Tell us about that one book.
Oh, there are so many, that you know, I'm going to have to go with How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It changed my life when I read that book, and I read an original additional. So, it was a little dated in the narratives, but I loved it. It really taught me so much about how to engage with people; how to make them feel like they matter, because they do. And so, that one, I’ll have to put it right behind the Bible, the Bible is my faith, and I’ll put that as my number two.
Great. Thank you. Emily, what about you?
Oh, this is tough to answer. I really have two to this. One being, Harry Potter, because I re-read the series every single year for the past seven years, and my (inaudible) right there. It’s just a good way to escape, and I love that series. But, I’d also have to touch on Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. I'm a therapist, but I'm also a codependent, so I think no matter what anyone does, it’s important to understand what that means and what healthy boundaries is, and how do we take care of ourselves, then helps us take care of others. So, I'm sorry, I can’t just choose one, it’s got to be a tie between Harry Potter and Codependent No More.
Okay, we’ll let you squeak by with both.
Thank you, thank you.
She’s kind of getting on Harry Potter is what it is.
This is true.
Aren’t we all? So whenever…the listeners out there can’t see this, but whenever I ask this question of my guests, their faces just break out in smiles, and it’s such a powerful question. I try to model this question in front of my child who I'm raising as reader. When I run into people in the grocery store, or at school pick up, rather than asking them how are you? What’s going on? I try to ask them, tell me what you’re reading now? Or, tell me a book that I need to read to increase conversations around books, and obviously, the conversation you guys have around books that bring joy to your lives. Andrea, you committed that your book is important because it helps you learn how to treat people like they matter. Emily, you commented that your book helped you establish better relationships so you can be a caretaker of people. And in the work that you guys are doing with your Little Readers program, both of you guys are exemplifying that that works. So, thank you so much for your time and for your innovative work in spreading literacy to a population that really may be overlooked in many ways. Thank you so much for your time and your energy, and it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Thank you so much.
This was so much fun and thank you for taking your day in taking up literacy.
That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts. If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of readers, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about my work and for the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage, www.endbookdeserts.com. Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share your stories and reactions with the hashtag #endbookdeserts. Thanks to Duane Wheatcroft for graphics and copy, and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing. Until the next episode, happy reading.