“I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
A woman prisoner at a Gatesville prison unit reads the familiar words from Robert Munsch’s storybook as a volunteer captures her voice on tape.
She hasn’t seen her young son and daughter in several years.
Her children receive a copy of the book and a CD containing the reading. Back home with their caregiver, usually a grandmother or a friend, they play their mother’s voice over and over.
Some have taken the tape to school with them. Others have slept with the book, listening to the sound of their mother’s voice.
For a dozen years, volunteers with the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas have traveled from throughout Central Texas to prison units in the Gatesville area outside Temple to connect children with their incarcerated mothers.
Every second and third Saturday of the month, the program reaches out to women in four Gatesville area prison units.
The Women’s Storybook Project has recently expanded to two female prison units in Dayton near Houston. Just this weekend, another prison unit in San Saba was added.
What started out in 2003 with five volunteers and 25 books has grown to more than 200 volunteers and over 2,000 books. About 1,200 incarcerated women have recorded their voices reading storybooks to their children. And the numbers are growing.
“Female offenders is the fastest growing prison population,” said Judith Dullnig, founder and director of the Texas outreach. “The Storybook Project has been successful in reaching thousands of mothers and their children. The stories they tell will touch your heart.”
The idea for the project originated in 1993 with a program founded by Lutheran Social Services in Chicago. Dullnig was inspired by friends in Louisville, Ky., who had a similar program. After about a year of research, connecting with a social worker within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, finding volunteers and searching for funding, the Storybook Project began within an outreach program at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church of Austin.
It started out with volunteers carrying four tape recorders, cassette tapes, and padded mailers to the Hilltop facility in Gatesville. The Gatesville area has six female prisons and has the largest number of female offenders in one concentrated area in the entire country.
Dullnig was invited to transfer the Storybook Project to Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA), and it remained there for two years. At one point, TIFA planned to include men in the program, but plans changed after it was determined that it would change the dimensions of the Storybook Project. The program then became Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, which continued to focus on children of incarcerated mothers.
From 2005-2013, Women’s Storybook Project operated under the umbrella of the Austin Community Foundation. In 2014, WSP was recognized as a stand-alone 501(3)(c) organization.
The volunteers have upgraded from using cassette tapes to using laptops to record the women’s voices on thumb drives and transferring them to CDs.
Pat Roberts, 65, a retired teacher from Leander who has volunteered with the project for a dozen years, said she never thought she would be volunteering in a prison.
“The first time I went I was terrified,” she said. “But then you talk with the prisoners and hear their stories. It makes you realize that they are women just like you and me who have an intense love for their children.”
Before they begin their recordings, the women gather in a circle to talk about their experiences and what they have heard from their children. Some haven’t seen or spoken to their children in years.
“Some women have told us the Storybook Project is the only good thing they have in prison,” Roberts said. “Others say they look forward to the recordings. Finding a way to be in contact with their children gives them a reason to get up in the morning and stay strong.”
The incarcerated women get to choose among the books brought to them by volunteers. The most popular ones include Love You Forever by Robert Munsch and The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, a heartwarming children’s book about overcoming the fear of loneliness or separation from parents.
Many of the women write messages to their children inside the books. Some draw around the shape of their hand as a way of reaching out to touch their child. Their children place their hands inside the drawings of their mother’s hand.
Some caregivers and children have written letters thanking the volunteers for sending them the books and recordings.
“It was the first and only time we have heard her sweet voice outside of that prison wall in almost 13 years,” wrote one grandmother who cares for a child of a prisoner. “ It is the greatest thing in the world to me and my grandson.”
For little Adriana, the best gift was hearing her mother mention her name
“I like to hear my mommy’s voice,” she wrote. “It makes me think she is with me,”
Jessica, 14, who lives in Colorado, wrote that she was overcome with emotion when she opened the package from Texas containing a book and recording of her mother’s voice reading Skippyjon Jones, a book they used to read together when she was younger.
“I bursted into tears of joy for receiving such an amazing present,” she wrote. “I hope you guys can expand this project all over the states.”
The project also benefits the prison. In order to participate in the program, the women prisoners are required to be on good behavior for 90 days before enrolling and they must remain case-free during the four months that they participate in the program.
Volunteers for the Storybook Project hail mostly from Austin, Georgetown and Cedar Park and travel from as far away as San Antonio. More volunteers are needed from Temple and the Bell County area.
“This is such a marvelous program,” Roberts said. “I have made so many friends with other volunteers during the one and a half drive to and from the prisons and the women we work with have inspired me. Their stories touch my heart.”
Roberts recalls one family who said they didn’t have a way to play the tapes.
“So every night before they went to bed they would gather outside in their car to play their mother’s tape,” she said.
Rhoda Silverberg, 73, who moved from Massachusetts to Austin, has been volunteering with the project for about six years.
“Seeing a mother’s eyes lighten up when she talks about her children makes it all worth it,” she said.
Many incarcerated women have written letters of appreciation.
One mother in a Texas prison wrote that she hasn’t seen her 11-year-old daughter who lives in Oregon since she was 8 years old.
“These tapes are the link we have for her to hear the sound of my voice,” the mother wrote.
Another mother wrote that the recordings encouraged her children to read.
“I would like to say that before entering this program my kids were only watching television,” she wrote. “Now they are exploring books and want to read.”
“I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be.”