Article for Optimist Magazine Re. Reading Program in Shawnee County  Detention Center.


Tentative Title:     A Reading Opportunity


In 1998, a change in the location of the Shawnee County Juvenile Detention Center in Topeka, Kansas provided the Downtown Optimist Club an opportunity to begin a continuing relationship with the staff and residents of that facility.   The Center which houses youth 11 to 17 awaiting adjudication or placement in a group facility or State institution moved to a downtown location just two blocks away from where the Club held it weekly meetings at noon on Friday.


Being aware of this move, I shared a suggestion with my fellow Optimist Board members that this was an opportune time for our Club to explore serving as volunteers with our new neighbors.  I approached the Board prepared to argue that the history of Optimists dated back to a time when the organization presented itself as “friend of the delinquent boy.”  Such justification was not needed since a unanimous Board agreed with my proposal and asked that I begin discussions regarding roles our members might play with the Ms. Dinah Pennington who was in charge of the juvenile facility.


When I approached Dina with the general proposal, she responded by saying that she had been reading to the residents, confined in individual cells or rooms located in four different modules, and wondered if our Club would also be interested in reading to the kids in relatively small groups.  I thought that this was a great idea and, after checking back with our members, found four or so who were willing to pursue this idea of reading for an hour or so once a week on Friday afternoons. 


Although this Center and other confinement facilities usually are interested in incorporating volunteers into their programs, one just does not walk in and begin work as a volunteer.  As a first step, those of us volunteering submitted applications that allowed the Center to complete background checks. Then, we began a brief training program that introduced us to the Shawnee County Juvenile Detention Center and its operations.  We toured the facility, met with staff, and also watched some training videos that alerted us to some of the problems likely to be encountered by volunteers in a confinement facility.  We also provided medical information necessary to complete the clearance process.


Since I had worked in prisons before embarking on an academic career teaching criminal justice at the college level, I suggested that we could get the residents involved in the program if we treated the materials being read somewhat like case studies.  This meant that from time to time we would stop our reading out loud and ask questions of residents such as:  “What would you have done in this situation?”  , “What options were open to the central character at this point in the story?'; and “What resources does the youth in the story have to use in meeting the challenges being faced?”


With three other volunteers available--Bill Gannaway, Jr., Bill Kastens, and Marty Viterna, our only female volunteer at the start-- we divided into groups of  ten or less, usually with two readers so that we could alternate. After we had been at the project for a couple of months, Dina Pennington decided that we needed a short name for our efforts and tabbed us as the Downtown Optimist Discussion Group or DODG. 


At the outset, most of the groups of residents seemed willing to participate in our reading and discussions.  At the start of each session, we introduced ourselves by our first names and got theirs. They we explained that we were from the Downtown Optimist Club, an organization interested in youth, and that we were here for one reason: To assure them that someone in the community was interested in them while they were in confinement. We stressed that the program was voluntary on their part and, if they didn't think they could handle being in the group, they should go to their cells now rather than wait to have us ask them to leave—an action with negative connotations for the residents at that point.


By and large, the residents listened to our reading and, with some effort, we were able to get them to take part in the discussions.  If  any of the residents were talking, we usually would stop and address the issue, pointing out that the behavior was distracting from the reading.  Usually, this was a sufficient warning to settle the matter but, if distractions continued, we asked the members to leave the group. If necessary, this decision was enforced by the well-trained detention staff in the module with us. In retrospect, we probably used this measure just enough to let it be known that we would not let a session be disrupted. 


We had no specific game plan regarding the type of materials we would read to the group.  We tried some of the classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn but we also soon received recommendations from staff and others who had worked with kids in this age group.  A particularly valuable suggestion came from the school counselor daughter of one volunteer who recommended Forged by Fire, one of a series of excellent books by Sharon Draper which focus on youth and the challenges they face in urban communities today.  Over the years, we have been indebted to Ms. Draper, Cynthia Voight, Gary Paulsen and others who deal largely with youth and the issues they face in contemporary America.  


When we began the program, we were able to go the the Juvenile Detention Center at 1:00  pm, immediately following our weekly Club meeting. The assignment of additional teachers from the Topeka school district enabled the Center to expand its instructional program for youth who had not completed high school to 3 pm. each day so this meant that we had to change our schedule. Unfortunately, this meant that we lost two volunteers who were not available at the later time. Bill Gannaway and I continued on for several years and began to feel rather comfortable with our reading groups. When we started, we had read both in a small conference room without staff being present and in the dayroom that is the center of a direct supervision facility.  At some point, we decided that it was best that we read in the dayroom so that staff was well aware of what was going on in the group.


When Bill Gannaway, a retired minister, had to travel a good deal as a representative to seminaries, I continued on alone while I looked for additional volunteers.  Reading for an hour or more can be demanding so I soon discovered that a solution was to ask if any of the residents would like to read.  Reading always was voluntary and I felt that it added a different dimension to the program as well as giving an older voice a break.  We were able to recruit several volunteers from the community, including Doreen Overman, a retired teacher, and John Floyd, an investigator with the public defender's office.  Each  volunteer brought new ideas and enthusiasm to the program. For example, Doreen recommended our reading The Hobbit a book that I was only heard of and was somewhat suspicious of because I thought it dealt heavily with magic. My suspicions were unfounded and, for me, the Hobbit turned out to be an interesting and excellent exploration of what made an effective leader.


As more and friends learned of our program, I began to receive valuable suggestions regarding possible reading materials and thus we have found new writers of interest to our groups.  We still return to the classics and I have been both pleased and surprised at the interest expressed in H.G. Wells', The Invisible Man, and, our current selection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.


The DODG program received a major boast about four years ago when a long-time friend, Dr. Ken Kerle, and his wife, Lib, returned to their native Topeka.  Ken had taught in college and become a recognized expert on jails from his work as editor of American Jails and the two books he has written on the subject. Ken accepted an invitation to join Optimists and has been at the Center as a volunteer reader  almost every Friday since he returned.  This year, another member, Joanne Kensinger, a retired teacher in the school system, completed training and joined us as a third volunteer.  Now, each of us has the rare experience of having a Friday afternoon off once each month.


Our goal continues to be that rather simple one of  letting young people in confinement know that someone in the community is interested in them.  We never want to know why participants in our groups are locked up. Some may be there for quite serious charges but I remain optimistic about their futures telling them that I think most of them have experienced temporary bumps in the road and will spend the rest of their lives in the community. 


As we got to know the residents and their interests, it became obvious that many took advantage of “free” time to read a good deal.  Under the rules of the Center, a resident may have a maximum of three paper backs in his or her room, in addition to one religious book.  As a club, we found that we could help by budgeting an   annual item for purchase of books for the Center.  In our usual budgets, we allocated $300 for purchase of new books but some years we received special contributions that enabled us to increase our gift substantially.  Thus, we figure that since the inception of the program we have contributed something in excess of $4,000 for the purchase of books.  The Club also has found other ways to show our concern for the residents. For example, at Christmas time, the Club members bake a large quantity of cookies and take them to the Center to help the residents through what will be a difficult time to be away from home. 


From time to time, we do ask the staff to get anonymous feedback from residents and, for the most part , it has been positive.  I was impressed with one of these responses earlier this year when I was preparing a presentation on the DODG program.  The response indicated that the youth enjoyed the reading but then, he added, “I like old people.”  His comment addresses what may be a unique feature of our group and that is we clearly are inter generational. Without revealing too much, this clearly applies to Ken and me.  I began as a volunteer 14 years ago when I retired from full-time teaching at Washburn University and Ken is about my age. Clearly,  we could be the great grandparents of the kids  involved in DODG.  We try to stress that an added and unintended advantage of our group is that it permits communication across inter generational lines and allows a better understanding of different age groups.  We talk about the value of talking to grandparents and other older folks in order to  benefit from the experience of other generations.


This description of a program that we think may have been a successful one (we know that it has been rewarding for the volunteers) is offered to encourage other Optimist Clubs to consider reaching out to detention centers and perhaps group homes for youth to see if they might want to explore a somewhat similar volunteer program.  I was fortunate to have had the late Dr. Karl Menninger as a consultant and mentor both in my correctional and teaching careers.  One of Dr. Karl's consistent messages throughout his life, particularly emphasized in his interestingly titled article first published in AD magazine in February, 1979 and reprinted in American Jails, May/June,2004, “Christians Belong In Jail,” was that visitors and volunteers could play important roles in corrections by getting involved.  That seems good advice to those of all faiths today when large numbers continue to reside in our prisons, jails, and, yes, detention centers for youth.   Joanne, Ken, and I will be glad to provide any additional information you may want as you consider starting such a program.