February 2019 | Volume XXXVII. Issue 1 »

Reaching At-Risk Youths One Book at a Time

January 28, 2019
Rebecca Ferguson and Rachel Shulman, Vernon Area Public Library; and Magi Henderson, Glen Carbon Centennial Library

Reading and talking about books can be life altering.Staff at Vernon Area Public Library in suburban Chicago and Glen Carbon Centennial Library in southwestern Illinois can each attest to the power of the written word: they’ve seen its transformational capacity firsthand in the book discussion programs they conduct at the juvenile detention centers in their districts, which do not have funds to provide reading materials. Both libraries were recipients of grants from the American Library Association’s Great Stories Club, a reading and discussion program that gives underserved youth the opportunity to read, reflect, and share ideas on topics that resonate with them. ALA’s Great Stories Club provides grant recipients with reading lists, books to keep, discussion questions, and programming tips.


On an October morning in 2016, staff and administrators from the Lake County Hulse Juvenile Detention Center joined ten teenage boys for the 100th meeting of the Read for Life book discussion at Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire, Illinois. In attendance were the boys’ teacher, Bob Pakaski, librarians Gina Sheade and Pam Minarik, and special guests that included Hulse managers and therapists, library director Cindy Fuerst, and other library administrators.

As the discussion began, Sheade and Minarik demonstrated an easy rapport with the students. “We feel privileged to share our love of books and reading . . .and to hear them share their insights, feelings, and experiences,” said Sheade. The young men also view the book group as a privilege. During the discussion of Prisoner B-3087 , a Holocaust novel by Alan Gratz, they paid close attention to the talk around the table, responding to questions, asking questions, and contributing observations.

The young men are part of FACE-IT (Family and CommunityEngaged in Treatment), a program at the Hulse residential center where probationers ages 14 through 17 typically stay six to nine months. FACE-IT strives to “enable delinquent youths to function productively within society.” To Sheade and Minarik, the delinquent youths are just teens. “We don’t knowhow they landed where they are. Our aim is to change how these intelligent boys look at the world,” said Minarik.

The Read for Life book discussions began in June 2006 after Sheade and Minarik were awarded a grant from the AmericanLibrary Association’s Great Stories Club. Funded by OprahWinfrey’s Angel Network, the Great Stories Club was designed to reach underserved library populations through books. Sheade and Minarik envisioned a discussion group that would “inspire teens who face difficult situations to take control of their lives by embracing the power of reading as a tool for self-exploration and a meaningful way to connect with the wider world.”

During the summer of 2006 the Read for Life group met monthly at the detention center. The Great Stories Club grant provided all participants with copies of three books—Stuck inNeutral  by Terry Trueman, The First Part Last  by AngelaJohnson, and Born Blue  by Han Nolan. Ten FACE-IT students received the books to read and keep. The librarians developed discussion questions and selected small treats related to each book’s themes for the participants to enjoy.

When the pilot program ended, Lake County Circuit Court officials concluded it had proved that “the motivation to read can significantly contribute to moral, spiritual, and intellectual development.” Court and library administrators agreed that the project should continue. “You have single-handedly motivated a group of youngsters to read and to listen. All the boys want to do is to talk to you about books. That’s some magic,” wroteFACE-IT teacher Jack Cantor to Minarik.

Read for Life is now in its thirteenth year, having reached hundreds of at-risk youths through monthly book discussions supported by grants, private donations, and library funding.Books are selected in consultation with the FACE-IT teacher, zeroing in on literature that interests teens and includes character development, role models, and problem solving. Minarik has spearheaded the program since Sheade’s retirement in 2016 and a new adult services librarian, Laura Cohen, joined asa discussion leader.


Another recipient of an ALA Great Stories Club grant is GlenCarbon Centennial Library in Glen Carbon, Illinois. In 2009the library began holding book discussions at the MadisonCounty Juvenile Detention Center in nearby Edwardsville. The grant money provided funding to purchase books and for the library to lead book discussions for two detention center classrooms of boys and girls ages 10 to 18. Book selections comply with the Great Stories Club requirement that reading material focus on “the art of change: creation, growth, and transformation.”

In 2016 Glen Carbon’s youth services director, Magi Henderson, met with detention center staff and administrators to suggest that they add therapy dogs to the book discussions. Since studies have shown that therapy animals reduce stress and facilitate social connections she thought they would be a good fit with the participants. Detention center administrators were receptive to the idea and worked with Henderson to identify any pet allergies or fears of dogs among the participants.

Henderson coordinated with Got Your Six Support Dogs, a nonprofit organization in Collinsville, Illinois, that also places trained service animals with veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Five trained therapy dogs, four of them rescued from shelters, attended a fall 2016 discussion at the juvenile detention center.

When the discussion of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely TrueDiary of a Part-Time Indian  got under way, Henderson noted how the students relaxed and grew more receptive. “They became so focused on the animals that they were able to forget about themselves,” said Henderson. The discussion shifted from a Q&A to a sharing of experiences and thoughts. Henderson gained new insights into the students’ worlds, which she deemed well worth being occasionally upstaged by five friendly dogs.

The program was such a success that the Got Your Six SupportDogs organization continues to take therapy dogs to the Madison County Juvenile Detention Center for the book discussions. The animals also visit one or two Sundays each month to teach students about dog care and training.

Since 2009 Henderson has led about twenty-five book discussions at the detention center, with therapy dogs accompanying the last eight sessions. The program has given young people a space to discuss their thoughts and know that they’re heard. The outreach program is supported by grants, private donations, and minimal funding from GlenCarbon Centennial Library Junior Friends group to provide snacks for participants.


After thirteen years of partnering with the Hulse Juvenile Detention Center, Vernon Area librarian Pam Minarik offers tips for librarians seeking to reach students housed at detention centers in their districts.

Tip 1: Begin by setting up an appointment with a member or members of the facility’s educational services staff—a superintendent or lead teacher—to ask key questions:

 • What are the ages and genders of youths at the facility?

• How many youths are usually housed there?

• How many classrooms does the facility have?

• Does the center have an on-site library or another way to provide students with reading materials?

• Do any students have off-campus privileges that would allow them to have supervised visits to the library?

• What initiatives and programs are used by staff to encourage students to read?

• Does the center work with other community partners to offer programs to the youths?

Tip 2: From the outset, it is imperative to convey enthusiasm. Suggest ideas about how the library can partner with the detention center to improve student access to reading materials and resources. Programs might include:

 • Small group discussions of novels, held at the library or detention center

• In-classroom short story discussions for youths who cannot leave the facility

• Librarian-presented, in-classroom book talks, ideally with copies of recommended titles

• Lending materials to teachers for classroom use

 Tip 3: Keep logistics in mind:

 • Library staff may need to undergo background checks to enter the facility

• Student access to computer and internet resources may be restricted

• Reading and discussion materials may need to be approved by detention center staff

• Participants may rotate frequently depending on the length of their incarceration


There are many ways that libraries can make a positive difference in the lives of detained youths, encouraging them to forge a new way forward and become engaged community members. Glen Carbon and Vernon Area libraries have extended outreach to detention center youths to include:

 • Donating withdrawn library books to the facility, which requires minimal staff time and immediately increases student access to reading materials and resources

• Providing materials for and leading STEM activities at the detention center

• Computer-based job training for older teens, led by a local community college’s work force development program and held at the library

• Computer and technology training sessions, held at the library, for detention center teachers and staff

One incarcerated youth expressed thanks for library-donated books: “The books that we have received are very helpful. The books also answer some of the questions we have about life. Having more books would be better, because almost all the books that are in our possession have been read cover to cover. We greatly appreciate the fact that we have these books to occupy our time. Reading these books has changed the way some of us think.”

As teacher Jack Cantor, from the Hulse Detention Center, wrote to Vernon Area Library, “Reading is life and without it life is indecipherable. Thank you for supporting what we may become—citizens capable of problem solving and making the most positive choices.”

For more information on the ALA Great Stories Club grants, visit https://apply.ala.org/greatstories.

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