By Suzanne Majors Davis, Contributing writer, Westlake Picayune
Westlake resident Judith Dullnig always thinks about the bond between mothers and their children, not just as Mother’s Day approaches. But, she’s taken it a step farther: She created a program that strengthens the bond between those who society has forgotten – female prisoners and their children.
In 2003, the educational psychologist founded the Women’s Storybook Project, so that children of incarcerated mothers could be reassured by hearing their absent mothers read to them and mothers could improve their self-esteem by practicing positive parenting.
It started after Dullnig returned from a visit to Louisville almost 15 years ago. She heard about a church’s outreach program in a local jail, where mothers recorded books for their children. “The idea really tugged at my heart, so I made calls and finally found a social worker in Hilltop (a women’s prison in Gatesville), and she really liked the idea and helped me design the program,” Dullnig said. “I knew what I wanted, but she knew the parameters of the prison.”
Just thinking of a child being separated from his mother motivated Dullnig. She had experienced that in a different way, after losing both her parents by the time she was 8 and being raised by her mother’s sister and husband.
Her first prison visit started with four tape recorders, five volunteers and 25 books.
“I had no idea how it was going to work,” Dullnig recalled. “I always remember when I heard the gate clink, I realized, there I was. When we got going, the 12 moms chosen were so excited, and time just flew by. The next month, we asked if they had heard from their children, and right away, I knew we had a good idea because one of them said, ‘My child carried the tape wherever he went,’ (and) another said, ‘My child took the tape and book to bed.’ Those stories were really powerful, and indicated the power of their mother’s voice. From then on, we kept refining the program and adding prisons and volunteers.”
Today, 200 volunteers visit nine Texas prisons. More than 15,000 books have been sent. Last year, Women’s Storybook Project volunteers provided over 4,000 hours of service.
“It’s a simple idea with a big impact,” Dullnig said. “Mother’s qualify by having good behavior for 90 days [prior to the visits], so wardens like that.”
Dullnig said the female prison population is rising, and one reason is bad-check writing, which is a felony. Her volunteers don’t meet with maximum-security offenders.
After being screened and trained, volunteers work with mothers to choose a book, record messages for their children, and record them reading a book. Then, their gifts are sent.
Prison visits are made one Saturday per month, and inmates can participate four months in a row before new ones are chosen.
At a fundraising luncheon on April 26, former warden Melodye Nelson said inmates work hard to earn the right to read for their children, reminding the audience, “Who wouldn’t give anything to hear their mother’s voice again?”
“It was a blessing to be allowed to participate,” a former inmate aid. “I was away from my young children for nine months … and went from being with them every day, to not being able to see them at all. We are very thankful for the wonderful Storybook project because it was the only way I could bond with them while I was away.”
Her young daughter said of the gift, “When we heard her, we had tears of joy. It felt like she never left.” Many children replay their mother’s recordings over and over.
Longtime Westlake resident and Eanes school board member Ellen Balthazar, an adviser to the charity, happily told guests that WSP met major goals by hiring a paid staffer, and updating recording capabilities. With a Google app, families can now download recordings from the Cloud and listen from multiple devices.
“Our program is really respected by TDCJ wardens,” Dullnig said, noting she wants it to be available in all female Texas prisons.
She said the nonprofit organization will send special electronic gift notices to those who make Mother’s Day donations through the WSP website, www.storybookproject.org.