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Reading builds bonds between children, fathers in prison

A special education teacher at Sprague Elementary School volunteers in a literacy program promoting reading and positive relationships for children of inmates at Airway Heights Correctional Facility.


Debbie Reisenauer

The Words Travel program of Volunteers of America in Spokane is based on the idea that “if Daddy says reading is good, it’s good.”

Debbie Reisenauer, the program’s volunteer coordinator, has been involved since it started in March 2002.

After 11 years of working with Keytronic in Cheney, Debbie accepted a layoff offer that allowed her to earn an elementary education degree in 2001 from Eastern Washington University.

She decided to teach special education because of the help one of her children received from a teacher when he was struggling.  She also prefers one-to-one and small-group teaching.

After working four years as a substitute teacher for the Cheney school district, she went to the Airway Heights prison seeking ways to be involved.  There were no jobs, but on a tour she learned that Words Travel was starting and seeking volunteers.

VOA’s Words Travel works with men and women in correctional facilities to improve literacy and keep parents in touch with children.

“I was not naïve enough to think this program could necessarily change the lives of prisoners or keep them from returning to prison, but I thought if their children could become more interested in reading and stay in school, I was interested,” Debbie said.

She attended the orientation workshop for volunteers and decided to do it.

“Words Travel helps fathers connect better with their children and strengthen their relationships long distance,” she said.


Debbie Reisenauer

The idea is simple.  The father reads stories on a tape and sends the books and tape to his child.  The children hear their father’s voice.  In addition, the fathers are encouraged to talk about the stories and relate them to real life.

VOA director Marilee Roloff said that even though some young men in prison may be cons, many are courteous and genuine when they are off drugs.

“Many are vulnerable and honest about their parenting or lack thereof.  Those who feel they have not been good fathers begin rethinking about being better parents,” she added.

Each year, VOA of Spokane holds five eight-week Words Travel sessions for two to 16—an average of five—prisoners.  Sessions are from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Mondays, usually with two volunteers. 

Recent volunteers who have assisted Debbie are Donna Roloff—Marilee’s mother—Gloria Stronks, Patricia Luce and Jim Uhlenkott.  Gloria and Patricia plan to take some time off for a while, so Debbie seeks more volunteers.

The first night of a session is for orientation.  The next six evenings are for reading and recording.  In the eighth session, the inmate does a project, personalizing a pillowcase or a book bag.  Anyone who misses two sessions without excuse has to leave the program.  Participants are chosen according to prison criteria.

Participation is not simple to arrange, because prisoners need the permission of the mother, who may not want the father to have contact with the children.  There may be a court order because of domestic violence or drugs.

We hear what they record and say.  Everything sent out of the prison is censored,” Debbie said.

 To protect privacy for families who don’t want to receive a package from a prison, VOA mails the boxes with tapes, books, a tape player, extra books and school supplies twice each session.

The books selected promote values—such as cooperation in family and school relationships, or dealing with playground bullies, racial prejudice and speaking out.

 “The Little Red Hen” is a familiar fable about a hen who asks for help.  She finds no one willing to help her bake a bread, so she eats it herself. 

“A father converses with his child as he reads, encouraging the child to think creatively, to anticipate what may happen next or to discuss if the little red hen should have eaten the bread alone,” Debbie said.  “We hope a caregiver or the parent at home will also engage the child in conversation.”

Another story, “Sometimes I’m Bombaloo,” tells of a girl with a younger sibling, frustrated that he messes up what she is playing with or doing.  She wants to scream and needs time out to settle down.

One father used it to talk with his child who did not like to share with his new sibling.  The father asked how his son felt, and advised walking away until he was calm.

The father continued, saying, “When I was your age, I acted like that.  I did as an adult, too, and wound up in prison.”

Debbie said the father heard that his child changed his behavior.

Some pick up a picture book and make up a story.  Some like to teach rhyme through poetry.

“The fathers make it fun by using inflection and surprise,” Marilee said.  “Many have never read to their children or even ever read a book out loud.”

Now when talking with their children on the phone, they make up stories.

Many learn how much they miss,” Marilee said, expressing the hope that some will change, but aware there is no way to track the effect because of privacy requirements.

She has heard feedback directly from some inmates.

One learned his son went to bed every night listening to the stories. 

Another took the bag with books and recordings to class for show and tell.

Debbie estimates that Words Travel gives out 360 books in a year.  Marilee said overall, VOA gives out about 1,000 books a year through prisons.

For information, call 624-2378.