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Church program helps convicts read to their kids

12/17/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Kim Riemland*

Eighteen-month-old Serenity of Pueblo, Colo., is doing what many experts say is one of the most important things a child can do: snuggling on her mother's lap, listening to a good book.

The voice she hears is that of her father, even though he is miles away, in a Colorado youth offender facility.

"This is all I can give her while I'm here, so I'm trying to do everything I can while I'm in jail," said Serenity's father, 19-year-old Joaquin Dorrance. He has been serving a sentence for felony robbery since October 2002. Under the terms of the youth offender program, he is eligible for release under supervision next summer.

Every week, members of SonRise United Methodist Church in Pueblo bring books and tape recorders so young fathers - many of whom are learning to become better readers themselves - can read to their children. The church then mails the tape and book to the inmate's child.

The program is one of several church efforts to raise the literacy rates of children in high-risk groups.

"It helps the dad and it helps the child," said the Rev. Susan Plymell, pastor of the SonRise church.

The National Adult Literacy Survey found that more than 70 percent of U.S. prisoners read at low levels, and that helping adults with their reading skills has a direct and measurable impact on their children.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, children whose families participate in literacy programs make significant gains on school readiness tests and language development.

As a former teacher, Plymell tells these inmates the gift of reading is priceless.

"We talk to them about how important it is to read to the child and how much a difference learning to read makes in the life of a child," she said.

Almost six years ago, church volunteers began reading with and to children who needed help with reading skills.

"It started because I have a love for reading," said Plymell, who was a teacher before becoming a pastor. "I know how important reading is, and I felt like our congregation needed to have a special mission."

The church now works in four areas of the community, helping underprivileged kids improve their reading, and in turn, their chances at success.

Serenity's parents hope hearing her father read to her will help her become a good reader some day, and will strengthen the father-daughter relationship.

"I think it is really important that she has a bond with him," said Serenity's mother, Tiffany Seriano. "He gets to feel good about his daughter receiving books from him and hearing his voice."

Dorrance says he'll continue to send the tapes and books, but he plans on being home next Christmas to read to his daughter in person.

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*Riemland is a UMNS correspondent based in Seattle.

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