Every week, children from across the Bay Area go through a sad ritual. They travel from Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, Livermore -- sometimes as far away as Fresno -- to visit a parent in jail. Either Santa Rita in Dublin or North County Jail in downtown Oakland.

They are among an estimated 2 million children across the U.S. with parents incarcerated in local jails, state or federal prison -- half of whom are 10 years old or younger.

For obvious reasons, jail waiting areas are terrible, scary environments for kids.

Lisa Harris used to see children -- some of them toddlers -- queued up outside Santa Rita with their moms waiting in line all day long. Harris, director of inmate literacy programs for the Alameda County Library, came up with an innovative idea.

Lisa Harris, director of inmate literacy programs for the Alameda County Library, reads to a young girl waiting to visit her father at Glenn Dyer Jail.
Lisa Harris, director of inmate literacy programs for the Alameda County Library, reads to a young girl waiting to visit her father at Glenn Dyer Jail. (Tammerlin Drummond/Staff)

Why not bring books to the jail for children and enlist volunteers from the community to read to them? The kids were a captive audience. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to help at-risk children, whose parents often suffer from poor literacy, improve their reading?

And so, Start with a Story was born in 2006.

"The parents were super distrustful at first," Harris says. "But now parents will walk up and say, "Go get a book."

The program -- funded through the Alameda County Library Foundation -- serves 7,000 to 8,000 kids a year. Every Saturday and Sunday, the volunteers set up shop in the jail visiting areas at Santa Rita and North County jails with a library cart full of books. All of the books are new or just gently used.


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Visitation waiting times are a lot shorter since the Alameda County sheriff got rid of the lottery and replaced it with an appointment system. But even so, visitors still have to wait.

Some children may visit the jail only once. But longtime volunteers have watched other children grow up.

"I've seen women come in pregnant and then have seen the kids at 1 and 2. I've also seen teenagers grow up," says Raoul Rodriguez, who works for the Alameda County Library inmate literacy program but like Harris volunteers his own time at the jail on weekends. "It's really sad, but at least we're here for them."

Whether it's for just a half-hour or five years of Saturdays, the volunteers have a chance to make a positive impact on a child's life.

On a recent Saturday, I visited the program at North County. Each child gets to take one book home. It is a real gift since a lot of the children don't have books at home. Many of the children are reading below their grade level.

A 15-year-old boy selected "Nate Fun Blaster," which is for ages 8 and up. But at least he was reading and not plugged into a video game or cellphone.

Start with a Story also tries to encourage mothers to take their children to local libraries.

One Richmond mother, waiting with her 5-year-old and 18-month-old to visit her fiancé, said the books were a godsend. Strollers aren't allowed in the waiting area, and it is stressful trying to keep her young son from crawling on the floor full of germs.

I can hear some people now saying that jails are not meant to be Romper Room -- that these mothers should leave their kids at home and "get a baby-sitter."

Forget for one moment that a lot of mothers can't afford to pay a baby-sitter.

Research shows that regular family visits can help reduce the trauma of separation for a child when a parent is incarcerated. Regular contact with family also improves an inmate's chances for rehabilitation after release.

Start with a Story is about trying to create an experience as positive as possible for a child in the midst of a very dysfunctional, unhealthy situation. It's about trying to help families rather than judge them.

Jihae Song, a nursing student who volunteered on a recent Saturday at North County Jail, said it makes her sad to see young mothers coming to jail with young children.

"All we can do is let people know we care and work with them where they are," Song said.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesdays and Sundays. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.