By Melissa Radcliff, Program Director, Our Children’s Place
Editor’s note: Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center is a statewide program committed to the children of incarcerated and returning parents. They strive to be the leading North Carolina advocate and educational resource focused on these children and the need for a statewide response to ensure their well-being.
An otherwise unremarkable mid-June Tuesday became a red letter day for me and other book lovers here in Durham. Why? The Durham County Library took the next step in their thoughtful approach to reopening: Library Take-Out! The books that had been tucked away in a canvas bag in my trunk for months will soon be back on library shelves, and then into the hands of other voracious readers. Meanwhile, my nightstand will soon be stacked high with new-to-me books to dive into.
As I eagerly anticipate that email from the library informing me I can arrange for pick up, my mind drifts to three book distributions that won’t be taking place due to Covid-19. We had Parent Day planned at three prisons across the state this spring. All three haveregrettably, but understandably, been cancelled. Parent Day helps support the relationship between children and their incarcerated parents. These are children and relationships that are often overlooked, misunderstood, and looked down upon. Thanks to community support, Our Children’s Place is able to create an environment where the parent-child bond can be nurtured and strengthened. During Parent Day children and their parents eat lunch together, work on a craft project (decorate pumpkins in the fall, paint birdhouses in the spring, and more), play board games (there’s no technology allowed in the prisons so no screens, cords, batteries or devices) and corn hole (often leading to some intense competition!), have their pictures taken (with children and parents each given copies), talk and listen, laugh and cry (saying good-bye is always tough), and learn a bit more about each other.
It’s the soon-to-be access to books on my wish list that has me thinking about another aspect of Parent Day: children, with help from their parents, select books from a display and take the books home with them in cloth bags donated by community members. At our most recent Parent Day, a local Girl Scout decorated bags as part of a service project. We encourage the parents to write a message in the books (we make sure we have plenty of pens available) so their children can read them later. We have bookmarks for the kids to decorate.
Books are donated by community members (thanks to Book Harvest for getting us started several years ago!) and organized by volunteers who are former teachers and librarians, and others who love to see the look in a child’s eye when they find the perfect book. Those book donations are the community’s way of saying, “we support Parent Day and the relationships between children and their incarcerated parent.” Each time, the parents express their disbelief that folks would donate books for their families, while the children are amazed that they can take books home. One child found several books in a series and asked, “I can take them ALL?”
The book display is so much more than a table with books arranged in a pleasing way. It’s an opportunity for a parent to encourage their child’s interest in and love of reading. Unfortunately, parents in jail and prison have very few of these opportunities. It’s a chance for those parents to see what their child likes and is interested in, which can be something to talk about during the next call, visit or letter. Sometimes they read the books together, another experience children can’t have while their parents are incarcerated. How wonderful to see a young child showing off their reading skills to their mom or dad!
When asked on a post-Parent Day survey “what is one thing you’ll do as a result of Parent Day?,” one father wrote:
I really encouraged my daughter to read the books that she took with her and that I would be calling her periodically to ask her about the books she read.
Talk with my daughter more about reading and writing which I found out she enjoys.
At our first Parent Day at a jail last September, one middle-schooler said the timing was perfect because he just finished his last library book.
I’ll never forget the look on the face and tone of disappointment in the voice of one incarcerated father a couple of years ago when I had to share we wouldn’t be having a book display at that Parent Day because I had dropped the ball. His response of “but my daughters love to read and were asking about the books” ensures I’ll never make that mistake again.
I can’t change the fact Parent Day has been cancelled due to the pandemic for the time being. However, I can encourage our community to be creative, bold, and caring as we think about ways to recognize and support children of incarcerated and returning parents, whether it be through a book display, our words, our actions or something we haven’t yet imagined.