Imagine a soldier, stationed in Iraq, entering a tent, dropping his gear, and picking up a copy of Charlotte’s Web to read to his daughter at home. Imagine that child sitting down tonight and listening to her dad read the first few chapters. And then imagine the comfort she feels knowing her dad is safe and well, as she picks up Charlotte’s Web to read the next few chapters on her own.
United Through Reading connects families through good books. Whether they are separated by oceans and continents or simply by circumstance, United Through Reading offers parents who are away from their children the opportunity to be recorded on DVD reading storybooks from more than 220 recording locations around the world. For families separated by military deployments, the Military Program is available on nearly all deployed US Navy ships, on bases and installations around the world, in desert camps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in more than 70 USO centers worldwide. The Transitions Program makes the same opportunity available for incarcerated parents in local, state, and federal corrections facilities—affecting our nation’s most vulnerable, the children of the incarcerated. The Grandparent Program, the newest program, is currently in pilot stages in San Diego County.
Mount Olive Baptist is a small church in a rural community in South Carolina where the nearest library branch is 10 miles away. In order to give children more exposure to books, the church membership took the bull by the horns and created their own children’s library by going to garage sales and buying books, dictionaries, and a set of encyclopedias. Books are also brought in from Richland County Public Library in Columbia, one of the nation’s best libraries. Every week, each child in Sunday School gets to talk about what they are reading. Church officials have been wonderfully supportive of this secular activity, and adults are coming in to re-read books they read as children.
Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop uses books and creative writing to empower teenaged boys charged and incarcerated as adults at the Washington, DC Jail to transform their own lives. The young inmates come from some of the city’s most crime-stricken and impoverished neighborhoods. At 16 and 17 years old, they read, on average, at a fifth-grade level, and most have never completed a book before joining the book club. Free Minds meets weekly at the jail to discuss works of literature, choosing titles that will resonate with the boys’ own experiences. By introducing them to the life-changing power of books, and mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and pursue positive new paths in life.
Why is reading vital?
We’ve seen firsthand the incredible power of reading to literally transform the lives of Free Minds members—teens who are incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system.] It allows them to connect with characters who look like them and have faced similar challenges, often, for the first time in their lives. By opening up the world to them, books take them beyond their current circumstances and allows them to imagine new possibilities and a positive future. Reading combats the incredible isolation they feel and connects them to characters who have overcome poverty, substance abuse, broken families, and violent neighborhoods, which gives them the hope and belief that they can also do it. Through books, our members also come to terms with traumatic experiences and difficult emotions. Teens who have to wear an emotionless mask to survive the harsh conditions of jail and prison are able to discuss and express feelings like love and fear in the safe environment of our book club sessions.
Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you’ve had since winning the prize:
Since winning the Innovations in Reading Prize in 2010, we have greatly strengthened and expanded our programming for our members who are still incarcerated and for those who are in our Reentry Support phase, which they join after they come home from prison. We have created a long distance Book Club called “Books Across the Miles” (BAM) where our members who are held in 46 different prisons in 23 states all read the same book and share their opinions and insights in writing which we then print in our newsletter “The Connect” and mail to all of them. It’s a great way for them to increase their excitement about reading which began while they were in the Book Club held at the DC Jail. We have been thrilled to host more author visits at the jail such as the amazing Walter Dean Myers. We are so saddened by his passing. He was an incredible voice of hope for our members.
Free Minds was voted as a “Best Practice” by the Corrections Information Council a body convened by the DC Mayors Office. We have expanded our Violence Prevention Outreach Program called “On The Same Page” where our members who are home from prison speak to high risk youth in middle and high schools in the DC area urging them to stay in school and telling them about the pain and trauma they experienced after they were caught up in the street life. They share the impact reading and writing has had on their lives and convey a powerful message that education is the key to personal and societal liberation.
Since Free Minds began, we have served over 850 youth incarcerated as adults who have read over 15,000 books! We maintain a recidivism rate of 30% or lower as compared to a national average between 70-90%.
826 Valencia is a nonprofit writing and tutoring center dedicated to helping students ages 6 to 18 improve their writing skills, and to fostering a lifelong passion for reading and writing. Founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and veteran teacher Nínive Calegari, 826 Valencia now has over 1,600 volunteers including published authors, magazine founders, filmmakers, and other professionals who donate their time to work with thousands of students each year and who allow us to offer all of our programs for free. Five days a week in our after-school tutoring program, students work one-on-one with trained tutors to complete their homework, and then they spend 20 minutes reading books from our library. After homework and reading, students work on a variety of extracurricular writing projects that we then publish for real-world audiences.
Cellpoems is a poetry journal distributed via text message and on the Web that publishes original work by some of the world’s best established poets, including Charles Simic, Billy Collins, Kimiko Hahn, Michael Hofmann, and Matthea Harvey, as well as emerging poets, such as Kate Angus, Chris Bakken, and Andrew Zawacki.
Cellpoems provides entree into poetry that is naturally congruent with contemporary daily routines. By publishing poems of just 140 characters or less, Cellpoems does not aim to decrease readers’ attention spans; rather, it adds focused, distilled work to a grand tradition of short poems, from the tanka and haiku to the monosonnet, and aims to present poetry to as many readers as possible by making it easily accessible to digitally-minded readers.