By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

From a large screen in the corner of a room, a woman, wearing make-up and neatly styled hair, sat in front of a blue paper backdrop and held up a book and read the title.  

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A smock worn by volunteers and books used in the Reading Connection were displayed during a recent presentation of the program at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The Reading Connection connects incarcerated women with their children by recording the women reading. A copy of the DVD and the book is then sent to the child. Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

“This is a book about dinosaurs and archeology, Josh,” she said to the camera. “I chose this book because I know you love dinosaurs.”  

Holding the book next to her face while making sure the pages were clearly visible, the woman read each page to her young son, through the lens of a camera. Sometimes she would point out something of interest in the pictures or refer to Josh’s siblings. It was all very personal, very warm and very moving.  

What was not visible on the screen was the woman’s prison-issued garb or the cinder block wall hidden behind the blue paper. She was participating in the Reading Connection, a program that allows incarcerated women in Louisiana to read to their children on video. A copy of the DVD and the book that was read is then sent to the child. In this case, the packet was sent to the child in Mexico.  

“We’re hearing that the children are playing the DVDs of their mother reading to them over and over and over,” said Sandra Kuykendall, one of the organizers of the Reading Connection. This was part of a recent presentation to Prison Ministry of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, which included testimony, facts, plans and sample books.  

The Reading Connection started as a casual conversation among exercise buddies, Judith Howell, Laura Adams and Kuykendall, who meet regularly at a Baton Rouge gym. Howell, who donated to a Texas organization that made audio recordings of incarcerated mothers reading to their children, also donated to Kairos Prison Ministry, which Kuykendall was involved in.  

“(Judith) said, ‘Do y’all do anything like (making audio recordings) here?’ and I said no, and she said, ‘Why don’t y’all do that?’ ” explained Kuykendall.  

After thinking about the program, Kuykendall approached prison officials, who suggested video instead of audio recordings. The idea stalled until Kuykendall approached CCDBR about the program, which led to a connection with the Baton Rouge Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (DCCW).  

“It was just a God thing,” said Kuykendall. “I mean I truly believe that he was in the mix of that because everything just started falling into place.”  

With the help of donations from Prison Ministry and DCCW, Kuykendall, Howell and Adams were able to watch the seed they planted begin to bear fruit. DCCW, which encourages reading by providing books to children in need, found Reading Connection was the perfect fit for their own outreach efforts.  

“We do things to benefit women and children, so this was a good project for us,” said DCCW president Cassandra Will. “It also might encourage some of the other mothers who maybe hadn’t finished high school to work on their GED and do more reading themselves. It also might encourage their children to read more if they see mom reading.”  

DCCW member Smittie Bolner, a retired school librarian, did quite a bit of research to find books on a wide range of topics that were geared toward the three-to 10-year-old age group. She ordered 262 books for the initial start.  

“I wanted to have enough books so the mothers could choose what books they wanted to read,” she stated. “If the selection is limited, the choices are as well.”  

Reading Connection visits were held Sept. 14 and Sept. 21 at the former Jetson Center Youth and the Elayn Hunt Correction Center, where female offenders are being held following the 2016 flood that damaged the Louisiana Correction Institute for Women in St. Gabriel. A total of 10 mothers read to 13 children, with each individual child receiving their own DVD and book.  

Volunteer Carol Bradley, who was initially hesitant to visit a prison, said being involved was rewarding, especially after seeing the transformation of the women after they read. She said in the beginning, the women kept their eyes downcast as they started picking out books, but after they made their selections “it was like they were waking up.”  

“After they filmed (the video), they made eye contact, had a smile on their face,” she beamed. “It was like they thought they had accomplished something. You could feel the energy. You could feel the love. And, when I went in to look at some of the clips with them, the tears started falling and you knew it was sincere.”  

“This is a great ministry to strengthen the bonds mothers have with their children while they’re incarcerated,” says Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Prison Ministry of CCDBR.  

According to Kuykendall, many of the women don’t have the opportunity to see their children because of the distance of the prisons, especially in the case of the woman on the video, whose children are in Mexico.  

Kuykendall said quarterly visits are planned for the Reading Connection next year, with sessions slated for January, March, June and September. Until then, she and the other volunteers continue to seek donations for equipment, postage, packaging, DVDs and books. The group also hopes to build up a bank of volunteers to help out the cause.  

“We had no idea it would turn into this,” she said.