(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Metro section on Thursday, December 1, 2005)
By Kim Bell
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Over the hum of vending machines and the chatter of fellow prisoners in light-gray jumpsuits, Michelle Varney opens the children’s book and tries to put a lilt in her voice.
She wants to bring the hedgehog to life in Jan Brett’s storybook, “The Hat.” A hand-held tape recorder picks up Varney’s tale.
Inside the women’s prison here, it’s important to Varney that she sound cheerful. The tape is going to her three children, whom she hasn’t seen in three years.
Sending a book on tape every month to them in Springfield, Mo., through a program called Story Link, is the only way she has communicated with her children since being locked up for forgery in 2003. They live with her ex-husband, and they don’t visit the prison.
She has been told by her mother that the youngest child, an 11-year-old boy, hides the tapes in his room so he can play them over and over to hear her voice.
“This is my connection with my kids,” Varney said.
Since 1998, roughly 10,000 parents in Missouri prisons have recorded themselves reading from donated books as part of Story Link. Volunteers led by a husband-and-wife team from St. Louis started bringing the tape recorders into the Vandalia prison, called the Women’s Reception and Diagnostic Center, shortly after it opened seven years ago.
Tape recorders are normally an item confiscated at a prison’s front gate, but the volunteers with Parkway Prison Ministries made a deal. They agree to listen to every word on the tape. The prisoners can’t vent about criminal cases. They can’t direct angry messages toward an ex-spouse. And they can’t ask for money or plot an escape.
The volunteers take the books and tapes home and package them, mailing hundreds every month. What began at the women’s prison expanded into a 10th men’s prison in Missouri this fall and two federal prisons in Greenville, Ill.
About 10 percent of the 1,900 prisoners at Vandalia sign up for Story Link. They wait up to an hour in line for their turn at selecting a book and reading.
The maximum-security prison, about 100 miles northwest of St. Louis, is a collection of red buildings behind barbed-wire fencing. Story Link volunteers leave their homes in St. Louis long before sunrise to make it to the prison in time for the 8 a.m. reading program. Their goal is to help prop up fledgling relationships that prisoners often have with their children.
“It’s been successful with women beyond our wildest expectations,” said Dana Abendschein, who started the Story Link program as a ministry for prisoners. “The men, when they’re taping a message to their children, can be very tender. They’ll say things like, ‘I’m sorry. I messed up.’
“And the kids just love it. There was a 1-year-old who kept looking in the tape recorder for Daddy.”
Abendschein is an associate professor of medicine, cell biology and physiology at Washington University. He and his wife, Jane, also conduct a Clown Docs program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Story Link began after the Abendscheins and three others dressed as clowns for a Mother’s Day gathering at a women’s prison in central Missouri in 1997.
What Dana Abendschein saw broke his heart.
“It was clear the kids didn’t really know their moms,” he said. “I saw a mom pleading with her child to call her ‘mom.’ A director of volunteers at one prison had heard about a program for fathers to read to their kids. It wasn’t done inside a prison, but the Abendscheins soon took the idea and started Story Link. A nonprofit organization, Liberty Belle Ministries, now runs the program. The group has about 35 volunteers representing 15 churches in Missouri and Illinois.
Story Link spends about $10,000 a year, mostly on postage. Abendschein said the group runs on donations of money and books. Some schools and churches adopt it as a service program.
Once inside the prison, Story Link volunteers arrange the books on tables, and prisoners leaf through them.
During a visit last month, one woman needed a baby book for a grandson. Another wanted a Goosebumps book for her 11-year-old son’s book report.
“The last two books I sent him, he did book reports on,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m right there doing something.”
Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.