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Storybook program connects fathers with children

Nanaimo Region John Howard Society volunteers help an inmate record a storybook for his children at Nanaimo Correctional Centre as part of the Storybook Dads program. - Photo contributed
Nanaimo Region John Howard Society volunteers help an inmate record a storybook for his children at Nanaimo Correctional Centre as part of the Storybook Dads program.
— image credit: Photo contributed

The John Howard Society of Nanaimo is looking to the community to help keep the pages turning on a program designed to foster family literacy and connections between incarcerated fathers and their children.

For the past 11 months, the society, in partnership with the Nanaimo Correctional Centre, has been operating Storybook Dads, a program which provides books as gifts to children of incarcerated fathers at the jail, as well as a CD containing an MP3 recording of their fathers reading the book aloud. The book and CD is then shipped off for each child to read along with their father’s voice.

Since the local program started in January, more than 200 books have been recorded and distributed to children locally and across the province. But the one-time funding the society received from the city has run out, and until more funding can be secured, John Howard Society’s Cheryl Dodge, who helps administer the program, is hoping to get by with kindness from the community.

“It’s an absolutely amazing program,” she said. “We have noticed increased literacy levels with all of our dads which helps them to build confidence and will ensure success once they are reunited with their families.”

The fathers must meet eligibility criteria to apply and once selected, are given the books about two days in advance of the recording. Then John Howard volunteers come in and coach the dad through his reading and record the session with a simple MP3 recorder, which is then burned to disk.

“The first time a dad comes in to read with our volunteers, they’ll be very nervous, they’ll be unsure, and it is a bit of a daunting exercise to read out loud in front of strangers,” Dodge said. “[But] it’s been noted that dads have been walking around the various units reading out loud or practicing, and that’s pretty cool.”

The program is based on the Elizabeth Fry Society’s program, which has been offered in correctional centres on the Lower Mainland for years.

Dodge said she would like to see the program expand to model a program like Storybook Dads in the U.K., where the recordings are digitally edited and enhanced by specially trained prisoners, providing them with valuable work experience and qualification.

“They’ve gone so far as to create a social enterprise within the original institution that started the program.”

Dodge said while she has received plenty of support for the program from the general public, others still maintain the perception that incarcerated individuals should not be given special treatment.

Lisette Patenaude, professor for the department of criminology at Vancouver Island University, said it is a limited view that fails to take into account the children, who can be the forgotten victims of crime.

“If one believes in the adage that it takes a community to raise a child then why would one not support such a program?” she said. “These incarcerated men have immediate victims but these children are also victims by losing their fathers to incarceration; a choice that the child did not make.”

The majority of offenders have lower literacy levels than the general population, Patenaude said, adding that a program like Storybook Dads is rehabilitative, not only because it helps bridge relations between parent and child, but also because it promotes life skills such as reading comprehension.

“If one takes the simple view that incarceration should be solely punishment then we can expect an increase in recidivism,” she said. “When one realizes that there is a larger stake in conformity – that is positive familial relations – the less likely one is to break the law. Increasing the literacy of inmates provides a better opportunity for them when they return to society, and they will return.”

The maximum term for time served at Nanaimo Correctional Centre is two years less a day.

Dodge said many of the prisoners at the jail come from across the province, which makes it harder for those children to visit, and the existence of a program like Storybook Dads valuable.

“If we want them to be productive and proactive and pro-social members of our community, then we need to help them be that way,” Dodge said. “By helping them strengthen their connections to their children [it] helps strengthen the connection to the community, and it makes them less likely to reoffend.”

There are two ways to support Storybook Dads: by donating funds or new children’s books (newborn-12) to the John Howard Society, or donating Canada Post gift cards.

Please contact the society at 250-754-1266 or visit http://www.jhsnr.org/.

Patenaude has also started up a book collection at VIU, in the social science dean’s office, Bldg. 356, Rm. 310.

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