Father2Child Literacy Project expanding through Innovative Grant Program
Photos and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
The soothing sound of a parent’s voice is a source of comfort for children throughout the world, and one organization is helping children whose parents are in prison continue to find that comfort.
Now in its fifth year, the Father2Child Literacy Project works with fathers in California prisons to record books on CDs for their children to listen to. The CDs and accompanying books are sent to the children, along with a message from the father. The goal of the program is to support family connectedness, comfort children, and enable fathers to be active in encouraging their children to read.
“At the heart, it’s a literacy program,” said Karen McDaniel, founder of Place4Grace, the organization that operates Father2Child. “But what we really try to help them understand is it’s also about the comfort and care of your child.”
On a recent trip to Susanville, McDaniel and a small team recorded more than 200 hours of audio from 194 inmates at High Desert State Prison. As one group of men filed into a classroom to prepare to record, McDaniel calmed their nerves by explaining the process and assuring them nobody would be judging their book choices or recordings. They began browsing the available books, organized by subject, age category and language, each father intent on choosing the perfect book for his child.
“Sometimes when they come in and see the books, the expression on their face is very childlike and almost overwhelmed, because they’re seeing things that were never a part of their childhood,” McDaniel said. “Had their parent been reading to them and sending positive messages, the likelihood of them being here certainly would have been a lot less.”
The men record the books in private sessions with Place4Grace team members, and are welcome to record a short opening and closing message. Ulysses Ocampo read for his 7-year-old daughter, sharing a message with her about how it’s important to stay in school and keep reading.
“She’s out there in the world right now without me, struggling,” he said. “So whatever I can do, I do it for her so when she grows up, she can be a smart woman. She can learn, she can be smart, and she will be a really good woman who I will be proud of.”
Place4Grace’s mentor agency is Hope House in Washington, D.C., which reconnects children with their incarcerated fathers via numerous programs. Their research shows that families who participate in the Father2Child Literacy Project report an 86 percent increase in the likelihood of the child to read and to increase their love of reading.
“The point is, if you’ve left a child behind who you love and care for, we want you reading to them,” McDaniel told the dads at HDSP as they prepared to read. “Because we don’t want them ever to come here or to any prison, right?” The men nodded emphatically. “One of the single biggest things you can do to make sure they never come here is to make sure they’re doing well in school – they’re reading well, they’re doing well in school and they know they are loved and connected to you.”
The program is also about repairing broken connections and strengthening strained ones. Sending a book to a child can be a way to reignite a relationship, and fathers are welcome to record for their children of all ages.
“Sometime the fathers do this to reach out to their kids, or to reach out to their kids for the first time after a long period of absence,” said Sutina Green, who helps facilitate the recordings.
Interest in the program is growing. Over the course of three previous trips to HDSP, Place4Grace recorded 194 men. On their fourth trip, they had more than 200 fathers scheduled to record. All told, more than 1,000 children have been impacted by the HDSP program alone. Through CDCR’s Innovative Grant Program, recordings are also happening at Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley State Prisons, and this year will expand to Kern Valley State Prison, California Correctional Institution, Valley State Prison and California City Correctional Facility. The program provides CDCR funding for successful programs already operating in California prisons, enabling them to expand to “underserved” prisons, which are less accessible to volunteers.
Because only a few men can record at a time, McDaniel leads a discussion with the rest of the group who is not recording. Topics range from the importance of rehabilitative programs and preparing for parole suitability hearings to answering questions about law and policy changes and how they will affect incarcerated people.
Connie Davis, a library technical assistant and self-help sponsor at HDSP, organizes the men beforehand, scheduling who is going to record. She said she has heard from the men afterward how important the program is to them, as an additional way to stay connected to their children and for the information they receive during the group portion.
“I know they’re getting the benefit of it,” she said. “I know they are. When they leave, they’re so thankful and they’re so grateful and happy.”
Derrick Brown chose to read a book to his nephews called “Knock Knock.” Daniel Beaty’s illustrated book is written from the perspective of a young boy whose father goes to prison, and details the child’s feelings about his dad not being there for important life events. Ultimately, the father writes to his son, sharing how he will be involved in his life and will always love him, no matter what. Brown said that message was one he felt was important to share with his nephews.
“They’re boys, and they need their father, and their father is not there,” he said. “I feel like I can change, and love them, and help prevent them from coming to prison.”