The Storybook Project is giving those who are incarcerated a new way to stay connected with their children. 

The Storybook Project is a program in which volunteers from area churches and local service groups visit jails and prisons with donated children’s books once a month. The volunteers are directed under the staff of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois or a trained lead volunteer. They help incarcerated mothers, fathers and grandparents read aloud and record a book for their child or grandchild. 

A Catholic nun started the Storybook Project at Logan Correctional Center in Chicago in 1997.

Currently, 125 volunteers from across the state are actively involved with the Storybook Project. 

Mike Davis, director of Prison and Family Ministries, talked about the program at the Dayspring Native American United Methodist Church in East Peoria last month. The church began to get involved with Storybook to expand their outreach to Native Americans in the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin.  

When church groups work with an organization such as the Storybook Project, it’s easier to gain access inside prisons where the Storybook program is already established, said Dayspring Church Pastor Danira Parra.

“The Storybook program has a really good reputation and history with the prison systems that they have worked with in the past,” said Dayspring Church Pastor Danira Parra. 

The Storybook Project is not specifically for Native Americans. It is for anyone who is qualified to be a part of it, Pastor Danira Parra said. “The lovely thing about it is that Native Americans and people of all other races are included in that program, so it means we will have an expanded outreach, but it’s not going to be only expanded to Native Americans in prison, it will be an expanded outreach to whoever qualifies within the prison system.” 

Some criteria of the program is the inmate must have a child or grandparent who can receive mail from them. Prison officials are asked not to refer any sex offenders to the program because they usually can’t have contact with their children. Participants also must have a current address where the book and CD can be mailed.  

After making the recording, the book and a CD of the recording is mailed to the child at no cost to the offender or his or her family.  

“The goal of the program is to connect the mother and father’s voices to the child,” said Davis. “It reminds the father that he has a responsibility.”

The Storybook Project has reached out to over 55,000 children with the support of the Illinois Department of Corrections and churches and volunteers throughout the state. Over 35,000 incarcerated mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers have participated in the program.   

“Every person coming out of prison or county jail carries a stigma, stereotype the community places on them. Doesn’t matter what they done, it is there,” Davis said. 

Storybook tries to eliminate that stereotype. Storybook promotes literacy and a lifelong love of reading for not only the child, but the parent too, Davis said.  

In some situations, especially in the federal system, men may have committed the crime in another state and are in Pekin’s Federal Correctional Institution, so chances are very low that they can see their children. The child may be five to 10 states away, but Storybook offers a way to connect them by voice. 

Storybook requires volunteers to take a four-hour class to learn about the rules of the program before starting. Once volunteers have started, they can go into jails and prisons to help the incarcerated record a book for their child. Volunteers in the Storybook Project are not allowed to meet the children. 

Once the offenders go through the background check, they can be a part of the program. Offenders don’t need a background check if it’s been four or five years since the charge. 

The program supplies children’s books from various sources. The Dayspring church hopes to get permission from authors and publishers so they can start using Native American books in the Storybook Project. It would give the church an opportunity to provide Native American books to those people who want to use them.     

The dedication from volunteers and generous support of many individuals every year has helped approximately 1,000 mothers and fathers in Illinois maintain or begin to build loving relationships with their children. 

For more information about the Storybook Project, call Lutheran Social Services of Illinois Prisoner and Family Ministry at (618) 997-9076.