Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Library outreach brings hope to incarcerated youth

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WENATCHEE—For Wenatchee Public Library employees Chelsea Evans and Molly Schuringa, outreach with youth at the Chelan County Juvenile Detention Center is one of their favorite parts of their job.

Their least favorite part is that they only get to go once a month.

At each visit, they bring books and activities like crafts, games, or STEM projects to do with the children.

Recently, they made native flower arrangements with the children, which was a popular activity. Comments from the incarcerated kids included:

"I miss seeing flowers."

"Can I bring these into my cell?"

"This is my favorite thing about nature."

"I love nature so much, when I get out I am going to touch and smell everything ..."

"I miss nature."

"I love flowers so much."

Michelle Campbell has been teaching children at the Chelan JDC for 13 years and appreciates the library's outreach program and what it brings to her students.

"It's just been such an amazing connection with the students because Molly and Chelsea really bring community into the juvenile detention center because the kids don't have that except for, you know, within their units and with the staffing," she said. "It makes them feel connected to the community." 

The Chelan JDC serves youth ages up to 18 from Chelan and Grant counties. The school program is run through the Wenatchee School District.

Visits begin with books. Evans and Schuringa bring books that have been requested and books they think the kids will like.

"We really focus on bringing in diverse books for them to be able to relate to or find something of themselves in," Schuringa said.

Kids share about the books they have read in the last month and make recommendations to their classmates.

"It's pretty awesome to hear kids talking books with each other and sharing what they like and what they don't like," Campbell said. 

Books are very important to the kids because that is the only thing they are allowed to do in their rooms.

After books, they move into their activity.

STEM activities have included coding robots, Legos, and 3D printing. Sometimes, a speaker will visit to talk to the kids. Once, a local author conducted a writing workshop.

They have made dominos out of resin, air-dry clay ornaments, and large snowflakes that Evans and Schuringa brought back to the library for winter decorations. 

"And then this is the second year in a row we'll be doing a mental health-centered activity," Schuringa said. "So last year, we created a word cloud and had the kids talk about their like, What's one word that you would describe yourself? A positive thing about yourself?" 

"They're (Chelsea and Molly) pretty amazing," Campbell said. "And I think they get a lot out of it, too. I mean, I really think they like coming in. When people show up for these kids, and they're consistent, and they care, and they talk, and they're interested, that means a lot to the kids."

"My favorite part is that these kids, these students, are seeing how creative they are and how kind they are and how much potential they still have in them," Schuringa said. "They're all really beautiful souls. So I just really enjoy each and every one of them."

"That's basically what I love, talking to them and getting to know them," Evans said. "They're such amazing kids. When I think of them, I just, I think, you know, smart and friendly and funny and engaging and generous. And they're so engaged in every activity that we've brought, and they surprise me every time, so just spending time with the kids and getting to know them (is her favorite part)." 

Evans and Schuringa both have particular things that they hope the kids get out of their time with them.

"They let us know that they appreciate us; they thank us many times every time we go," Evans said. "And I think that having positive interactions with adults is just probably meaningful in itself in addition to their amazing teacher and ParaPro and the staff there, too."

"And we, I mean, well, we obviously think they're awesome," Evans said. "And we're excited to be there, and so I hope that they can tell that we care about them and we're rooting for them."

“We're invested in their wellbeing and their futures and then also making sure they know they have a safe and welcoming place to come, if they get out, at the library and inviting them here," Evans said. "And even if they're not going to get out, the library is coming to them. Important enough to us that we want to make sure that they have library services."

"I think that they have a lot of uncertainty in their future, and giving them the knowledge that the library is a safe space that they can come to, ask questions without any biases and that we're really eager to see them succeed in whatever next steps they take," Schuringa said.

With any job there are peaks and pits or highs and lows. Evans and Schurings shared their peaks and pits of doing outreach at the Chelan JDC.

For Schuringa, her peak was watching a student feel success and pride with 3D printing and the software used to create the objects.  

"And the pit was seeing this specific student's, seeing their trial date be pushed back and pushed back and pushed back until they became an adult and then were tried as an adult," she said.

"I have a story that happened recently, a teen, which is like a full circle story because the teen came into the library, and I could tell they wanted to talk in particular to me, and then once we started talking, I realized it was someone that Molly and I had seen at the juvenile detention center a year ago, and they remembered both of us they remembered everything about the visit," Evans said. 

The student remembered making zines and even what their classmates drew in their zines. She said they remembered a particular book and how much they appreciated it.

“It was a really nice conversation,” Evans said.

"They got a library card, and then I let them know that the zine project was really popular here, and library patrons took so many of them, and I still use them as examples, and they were like, 'Do you still have it?' And I say yes," she said. "And so I went and got the one that they had created and brought it to them, and they were so excited. They were still so proud of what they had created and showed everyone they were with. And it was a very happy moment."

"For me, it's just every time I go, I can see in their faces, sometimes it's important enough to just see them and Chelsea's story after she told me that story, I was like, yeah, it's just important to just go and show up and see, like, just be there. Sometimes that's enough," Scharinga said. "And just sharing in whatever moment that we have with them. Then they get to come back in and know that this, that the library, is a space for them."

Quinn Propst: 509-731-3590 or quinn@ward.media.

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