Beyond Our Walls Program Receives Best Practices Award

Lisa Schmittle and Felicia Gettle proudly hold their 2019 Best Practices Award.

York County Libraries won the 2019 Best Practices Award for Family/Multi-generational programming during the annual Pennsylvania Library Association Conference in Erie.  YCL was honored for the program collaboration, Beyond our Walls: Read Me A Story, which connects incarcerated parents with their children through books.

Program Launched in 2016

Now in its third year, the program has served 350 York County Prison inmates. During each four-week session, York County Libraries youth services professionals Lisa Schmittle and Felicia Gettle introduce quality children’s literature to a small group of inmates; helping them learn how to effectively use books with their children to develop literacy skills. Inmates select a book, practice, and record themselves reading it for their children. The recording, book and library resources are mailed to the inmates’ children who can hear their parents reading as often as they wish.

We spoke with program coordinators Lisa Schmittle and Felicia Gettle, to learn more about this award-winning program. 

What is the program?

Beyond our Walls is a collaboration between York County Libraries, the York County Prison, and the York County Prison Board of Inspectors. It connects incarcerated parents to their children, educates parents about early literacy, and helps parents build a better future for themselves and their families.

Groups of 10 moms or 10 dads meet once a week for four weeks. They connect with one another, with social services organizations, and with the library. At the end of the program, they record themselves reading a book, and a copy of the book and the recording are sent to their children. Any time the child wishes to hear their parent’s voice, they can listen as they look at the book!

What problem does it solve?

Beyond Our Walls keeps parents connected to their children, which is so important to children’s development. It connects the parents to library and community resources for when they get out, so they know how to help themselves get back on their feet. This may include things other people take for granted, like obtaining ID, how to perform job searches, resources for keeping their families housed and fed, and more.

How did you discover this need?

We were aware of other similar programs in the US, but we realized we had a need for it here in York County when we had community members come to our libraries seeking resources after they had completed their sentences. We realized that if we could connect with them while they were still serving out their time, that transition could be made easier and more effective.

Can you give me an example of a before-and-after for someone who uses this program?

A participant who sent a letter to York County Libraries about the program said that the program was “kind and compassionate beyond measure.”  The Beyond Our Walls program was a place that was “safe to share their thoughts without fear of judgement.”

The parent learned about where his/her child was developmentally, and how reading was not just good for learning, but also for emotional growth.  When recording  the book, the parent said that he/she “felt close to my daughter, knowing she would soon be hearing my voice and reading along! I was also able to write a message in the book. It made my heart smile to know she would have a tangible piece of my love for her even though I was absent in her life at the moment.”

They continue, “I have been able to speak with my daughter over the telephone. Her favorite thing to do when she misses me is to play my voice and read her book!  She and I talk about all the things we will do together when we are reunited and reading together is top of our list!  I am so very grateful to Felicia and Lisa and to the program Beyond Our Walls. ”

What makes this program unique from others?

Many of the people who are helped by this program come from the same local communities that we serve in the libraries. We find that we can offer a friendly face that people can recognize when they get out. Even if participants don’t come into a library that Felicia and Lisa work in, they know from working with us that they will find non-judgmental help at any of the libraries they walk into, and that is great. The saying “it takes a village” really applies to all members of our community, not just children!

What do you want people to know/understand about it?

The real importance of reading to your children and connecting to your children, no matter what the circumstances are. Many people don’t understand the importance of being active in their children’s lives and the impact it has on the children.

The parents in our program see this as a great opportunity to stay connected. They genuinely love their children, and are grateful for any chance to connect with them.

One of the dads in our program who really came to understand this told us that by listening to his voice reading a story to them, he hoped his children would connect the sound of his voice to him as their dad, when they were old enough to speak to him on the phone.

Where/When does it take place?

There is one four-week session each month.  We alternate between working with groups of moms and groups of dads every two months.   A parent can participate twice.

How can people support it?

Funding is always helpful! If a business would like to be a sponsor of the program, they can contact [email protected]

“Wish List” to expand?

The participants have said that they would love to have a library-run book discussion group or similar program; something that will give them another thing to work toward as they serve out their time.

Anything else?

We recently went through a simulation of the process that former inmates have to go through to re-enter into society, and we were shocked at how incredibly frustrating the process can be. And this was a simulation, not our actual futures! We could only imagine how stressful this would be for a person whose real future is at stake would find the whole process. It gave us even better insight into what the needs of these parents really are.

Congratulations on your award! What are your thoughts?

We could not have achieved this statewide award program without the active participation and feedback from the parents who take part. The feedback has helped to shape the program and meet the needs we were unaware of when we started. This has included things like connecting parents to Childcare Consultants Inc. so they have the tools to take care of their children when they get out. Crispus Attucks Center for Employment and Training helps make sure they are aware of the employment opportunities that are available to them as well. The participants also requested certificates of completion to mark their involvement.

Overall, what we offer is hope to these parents—hope that this time in their lives does not have to define the rest of their lives. They can learn and grow beyond it, and they can be good parents to their children. We are grateful for the opportunity to help shape lives with this program.