Children’s literacy program focuses on mothers in prison

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(Host) Inmates at the women’s prison in Windsor got an early Christmas present recently: a gift of children’s books, to read to their kids when they come to visit. They also got a message, about the powerful bonds and positive influences that come from sharing stories.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The books were a gift from the Children’s Literacy Foundation. Dozens of colorful volumes are spread out on tables in the prison rec hall. The inmates sit clustered at round tables as Duncan McDougall, the foundation’s founder and director, talks about some of his favorites.

(MacDougall) “There are a lot of great books here that anyone would love – you know, the art, the stories. ‘How I Became a Pirate’ came out recently – it’s a very funny, outrageous book about a kid becoming a pirate.”

(Keese) Some of the women have favorites of their own.

(Woman) “I really like reading ‘Little Nut Brown Hare’ because, ‘Oh! I love you up to the moon and back.’ Yeah, I say that to my son all the time.”

(Keese) Some women have less to say. McDougall thinks it could be because they’re not sure enough of their own reading ability to read to someone else. He encourages them to skip a word if they don’t know it, or to make up their own stories from the pictures. He tells the woman to be expressive.

(McDougall) “And yawn when your character is tired and be loud when there’s a wild animal and just jump into the story. Make it interactive. Ask your kids questions. Why did the dog do that? What do you think is going to happen next?”

(Keese) McDougall says one in five kids grow up unable to decipher directions or read a menu. He founded the Children’s Literacy Foundation to help change that by getting children excited about books at a young age. So far the program has worked in 200 communities in Vermont and New Hampshire.

The foundation sponsors book mobiles and donates books to rural public libraries. It donates children’s libraries to women’s homeless shelters, and gives the children in them their own books to keep.

(McDougall) “And we started the prison program because we realized there are few groups of children who are at higher risk than the children of prison inmates.”

(Keese) That’s something inmate Carlene Densmore, the mother of a six-year-old, is all too well aware of.

(Densmore) “He knows it’s jail when he comes and visits, so it’s hard. It’s hard to tell a child that they have to be good when they’re coming to visit you in jail.”

(Kinzel) She says being separated from her son is the hardest thing she’s ever been through. Another inmate, Nicole, is inspired.

(Nicole) “It just opens my eyes to my relationship with my children and what’s best for them – especially for my youngest son who is three and getting him started and a better bond and helping him to get more involved with books.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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