Women's Storybook Project

Reprinted from The ECHO (TDCJ's offender newspaper)

Simple idea with big impact allows mothers to connect with children

Touching lives

In the early years of a child's development, it is of the utmost importance they know they are loved by their mothers. The bond between mother and child is sacred and crucial to the healthy mental and emotional development of a child. The importance of preserving this most primary of family relationships becomes even more critical when the mother is a convicted felon. One in five children with an incarcerated parent ends up in prison, according to Women's Storybook Project literature.

The nature of incarceration makes it very difficult to maintain an intimate connection. Physical barriers such as steel bars, brick walls, razor wire fences, long distance locations, restricted visitation and limited lines of communication isolate convicted mothers from society and from their children.

Fortunately, there are those who are motivated to help these Texas families overcome those barriers.

The Women's Storybook Project (WSP) helps mothers behind bars and their children stay emotionally connected in an exceptional and constructive fashion.

WSP is a non-profit organization that records incarcerated mothers reading stories and brief messages to their children, with tapes and new books mailed to their children. Founder and director of WSP, Judith Dullnig, heard about a similar program in Louisville, Ky., and was moved to start one in Texas. With assistance from A. Mooney, a social worker at TDCJ's Hilltop Unit, Dullnig designed the new program.

"Women's Storybook Project is a simple idea with big impact," Dullnig said. The biggest and most important impact is the one that it has on those for whom it was created - the children. 

Womens Storybook Project volunteers record the readings of an offender in Gatesville.

"From the beginning, there were stories about children taking the books and tapes to bed with them, playing the tape over and over, and bringing it with them to school for Show and Tell," she said. It has also been reported by the guardians of the children that they carry the tapes wherever they go an even talk back to them!

Response from the children is positive. One child wrote in to say, "Dear Whoever Gets This: I love hearing my mom's voice."

Another child said: "Hi! The Giving Tree was a great story. My mom reading it to me made me very happy. I am looking forward to my mom coming home soon. Thank you."

"I really was happy to receive the tape and book. It was wonderful to share this with my mom. I feel very close to her hearing her voice. Thank you for making this possible," said yet another child whose mother participated in the storybook program.

After the program was successfully implemented on the Hilltop Unit, it was implemented on the Lane Murray Unit. WSP currently exists on six of eight women's prisons -Mt. View, Woodman, Plane, Henley, Hilltop and Murray.

The heart and soul of WSP is volunteerism. WSP began in 2003 as part of the outreach program at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Austin. In those early days, WSP had only five volunteers. Today it boasts 150 volunteers representing all faiths, ages and career paths -- from high school students to retirees.

Volunteers makes approximately 68 visits to the women's units per year. In addition, they carry out the duties of storing, packaging and shipping approximately 350 books and tapes each month to children around the country.

Every prospective WSP volunteer must complete mandatory TDCJ volunteer training and periodic refresher sessions as required. Also, new volunteers must be trained in WSP's recording process. They travel to various female units up to four times before completing volunteer training.

Volunteer team leaders coordinate and oversee the challenging process of recording incarcerated mothers. There must be volunteers to facilitate the recording process and adequate security staff available.

There are many payoffs for the hard work. This project provides volunteers with a way to make a difference in the lives of others, and the positive affect on the institutions where it has been implemented cannot be denied. Mothers who whish to participate in WSP must have at least 90 days of good behavior, which has yielded a decrease in disciplinary infractions.

What happens behind prison walls is just a small part of the storytelling effort. WSP is non-profit, relying primarily on monetary donations to operate; fundraisers and book drives are constant events. WSP partners with individuals, corporations, civic groups, churches and students and staff of major universities. It employs this multi-strand system to obtain new books, financial donations and other needed materials.

Offenders select books to be read to their children.

Everything that happens concerning Women's Storybook Project is relayed in its quarterly newsletter "Book Notes", composed of contributions from volunteers, guardians and incarcerated mothers. Whether it is in the area of fundraising, conducting a book drive, instructing others on how to properly package the books, or shipping out a high volume of books from one unit, "Book Notes" lauds the exemplary achievements of volunteers who make WSP a success.

Windham School District (WSD) partners with the storybook program at several Texas prison sites, coordinating efforts with the WSD parenting program. As a result , WSP has been honored three times as a recipient of the Governor's Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Awards: twice as a WSD Judy Byrd Award recipient, and once as a TDCJ Susan Cranford Female Offender Program Award honoree.

This award-wining effort to strengthen the bond of incarcerated parents and children is continually improving.

"Women's Storybook Project has recently received approval to update its recording equipment to CD's," Dullnig said. "We are also hoping to provide an extension of WSP to the mother and child when she reenters the community. The extension will be called Storybook @ the Center."

Passionate volunteers, a vast support network of donors, and dedicated parents are connecting children with incarcerated mothers through reading and literature. Women's Storybook Project of Texas remains a simple idea with a very big impact.

Appeared in The ECHO: Vol. 85, No. 8, October 2013

www.storybookproject.org

 

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Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
An offender at the Polunsky Unit prepares for graduation after earning his GED through the Windham School District.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
Students at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit strengthen writing skills during a literacy class.
Female offenders in Gatesville, Texas, study to improve their literacy skills during a WSD academic class.
Each day WSD correctional educators pass through prison gates across Texas to work with men and women incarcerated within TDCJ.