By Lydia Pyne, WSP Volunteer
On 13 March 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice emailed its volunteers to inform them that “effective immediately” all visits, volunteer training, and programs at correctional units were suspended due to COVID-19. These canceled programs included, of course, Women’s Storybook Project.
Although this was obviously a prudent decision from a public health perspective, it was – and is! – a huge disappointment to the incarcerated moms who were reading and recording books for their kids. “Pivoting and flexibility are central to Storybook’s success every month,” team lead Vickie B. noted. “We’re always looking for creative ways to ensure that the programs happen in every unit, every time.”
With no way of knowing when the program can physically meet again, Women’s Storybook Project has begun to pursue an active letter writing campaign in lieu of in-person sessions. The shift in approach kicked off in April, when volunteers with Women’s Storybook Project wrote letters to the participant mothers in nine of the units and to their kids’ caregivers from ten of the units. (One unit didn’t give permission to write to the mothers initially.) The letters emphasized how much volunteers valued the Storybook program and how much they missed being able to visit in person. “All our volunteers send their love and very best wishes to you, and we want you to know that we are planning to return as soon as we are given the green light,” volunteers wrote. “We will pick up right where we left off, so you will not miss any sessions of your Storybook Project.”
“If a mom asks us to say something special in the book, we are writing it in. Next up, we are planning on writing back to the mothers and letting them know which books were sent to their children.”Jill Gonzalez, Women’s Storybook Project’s Executive Director
By May, the letter writing project had expanded to include 120 moms participating in the Women’s Storybook Program in all ten units as well as children’s caregivers. In addition to the handwritten letters, volunteers included stamped envelopes and paper for moms to write back to Women’s Storybook Project with book requests for what they would like sent to their kids. “If a mom asks us to say something special in the book, we are writing it in,” executive director Jill Gonzalez explains. “Next up, we are planning on writing back to the mothers and letting them know which books were sent to their children.” Caregivers were sent postcards that had options for them to pick a book to be sent to the child participating in the program.
The return letters slowly started trickling in after letters were posted in May. By the third week, however, Women’s Storybook Project had received nearly 40 letters from moms with ideas and suggestions for books that they would have picked to send to their kids if the program had been meeting in person. Dinosaurs, books about cars, graphic novels, Curious George, The Invisible String and I Love You Forever were popular requests. “Anything magical or with unicorns,” one mom wrote. “A chapter comic book,” another suggested. “Paw Patrol is his favorite,” a third mom noted. “My children love the books that y’all send.”
The “signature book” for the Women’s Storybook Project is Patrice Karst’s bestseller, The Invisible String. It’s the story of twins, Jeremy and Liza, who learn about a thing called the “Invisible String” made of love that connects everyone and everything around the world. “As they slept, they started dreaming of all the Invisible Strings they have, and all the stings their friends have, and their friends have, and their friends have, until everyone in the world was connected by Invisible Strings,” the last pages of the book read. “And from deep inside, they now could clearly see…no one is ever alone.”
“In these months of pandemic limitations, it was a relief to be able to do something for the mothers and children we serve. I felt less helpless myself by helping someone else; a mom still needing to love and connect with her child(ren). Being able to tell the moms ‘we’re thinking of you!’ felt great too. It’s true, we’re thinking of them often.”Gina S., Women’s Storybook Project volunteer
Women’s Storybook Project plans to continue its letter writing and book sending campaign into the summer as the pandemic continues to spread across central Texas. “In these months of pandemic limitations, it was a relief to be able to do something for the mothers and children we serve,” Women’s Storybook volunteer Gina S. said. “I felt less helpless myself by helping someone else; a mom still needing to love and connect with her child(ren). Being able to tell the moms ‘we’re thinking of you!’ felt great too. It’s true, we’re thinking of them often.”
Even during the pandemic – perhaps, especially during the pandemic with its unending uncertainty – books can continue to connect incarcerated moms in the Storybook program with their kids and kids with their moms. It’s hard to imagine a more apropos time to be reminded of the Invisible String. And, by extension, the power of stories.
Interested in volunteering? Complete our volunteer inquiry form here and we will be in touch.