Archive for the ‘Reading for life’ Category

One of my favorite things to talk about, the amazing Reading for Life is going through some big changes.  The creator, director and all around uber-boss, Alesha Seroczynski, is moving on.  In  fact she is taking the next logical step, combining past experience and her work at RFL, she is becoming the Dean of a university initiative to provide inmates at a correctional institution with a college degree.  We’re so excited for her.

We decided that it was important to give her the perfect gift to honor her for all her work, and encourage her for the future.  For a while we came up blank, and then I had a brainwave.  Reading for Life was spawned as a pilot research project using Harry Potter books.  In fact, Alesha dreamed up the idea while thinking about Harry Potter.  One of her favorite books in the series was The Goblet of Fire.  Reading for Life uses good books, mentors, and virtue theory to help at risk kids (namely first time juvenile offenders and incarcerated youth) make better life decisions.  One of the virtues we teach is Hope: An invested belief in a future possibility.  We reckoned that Alesha embodies hope to everyone she comes across.  She believed that with just a little help youth who were falling through the cracks could have a new chance at life.  Currently more than 95% of our participants have had no further contact with the law.  That is amazing.  She gave them a chance at a better life. Her hope has transformed them.  Now she is moving on to men incarcerated in prison.  Yet again she has the opportunity to give people the gift of hope.

So, as a thank you for her 10 years of pouring hope into the lives of others we presented her with this:


Harry's Hope

Harry’s Hope

I am quite proud of this. Not only is it the perfect gift for Alesha, but it gave me the opportunity to learn a new skill.  Seriously fun, book folding.  This is in the middle of a  copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  It is a book that was rescued from a library, and was past it’s prime, but now look at it.  It can sit on her desk, remind her of what she was and what she is to so many people. A fitting gift.  The good news is, she loves it.  I might just need to make one for myself.

It’s not that hard, just a bit time consuming. You have to create a pattern (or purchase one as I did.  I don’t have access to photo shop to make my own….but that would be cool) then measure out the fold lines on your book, and then begin the folding.  It took about 7 hours in total, but the final product was worth it.


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That’s what a young 15 yr old told me 2 weeks into his stint with Reading For Life.  this young, feisty BMX biker, with ADHD, who loves making sly comments, is also a 1st time juvenile offender assigned to our program, Reading for Life.  He made no bones about telling me that he hated to read and was sure that he was going to hate the next 12 weeks of his life.  From the selection of books given them, including Jonathan Cronin’s The Passage, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Paolo Baciagalupi’s Ship Breaker,  the group chose Ernest Cline’s debut Ready Player One.  Two weeks of assigned reading later I heard:

Hate this book.”

“Really?” I responded. “Why?”

“I hate this book because it’s so interesting I can’t stop reading it.  I wanted to know what happened next.  I hate this book, because it makes me read and I hate reading!”

The twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face made it hard not to laugh out loud.

He’s not the first.  Over the past 5 years I’ve mentored a lot of teens in his position.  Many of them catch hold of reading in a way they haven’t for a LONG time. It’s pretty cool to see them discover how to lose themselves in a story.

The story isn’t all though.  In the process of stretching their imagination, we begin to stretch their awareness of the choices they’re making in everyday life.  We cultivate their empathy.  We see them change.

I consider it such a privilege to be a part of Reading For Life.  It blesses me, stretches me, and makes me laugh.

Today the woman who dreamed up the program, Dr. Alesha Seroczynski, got a little of the recognition she deserved.  NPR’s Participation Nation featured her on their blog. Check us out, and spread the news.

Oh, and if you want to help, we’re collecting books to create a reading library for kids that are in detention.  I’m currently working with three groups of teens that are locked up, and would love to be able to give them more to read to fill their down time.  Our requirements are that they are paperback books, as hardback books aren’t allowed in the Juvenile Justice Center. We are working on getting our own 501 C3 so that people can start donating directly to the program.  Books, however, are always accepted.  You can email me at bekki@ireadforlife.org and I can send you addresses to mail books to, should you so desire.

I know I’ve written about this program before, but it is near and dear to my heart. I love it when people are opened to new possibilities and get second chances.

That is a story I love to hear.

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(or reason #57 that I am envious of Kelly)

I wish I was friends with Real Life published authors.  I follow quite a few of them on Twitter, and they all seem so quirky and likable. Normal, and yet slightly more elevated than the rest of us plebes.  Okay, I know authors are just like the rest of us, one leg at a time and all that, but still, I wish I knew some.

But not for the selfish reasons you’d think.  And not because I need someone professional to tell me not to start sentences with ‘but’ or ‘and’. (oh well partly because I think they should be my friends but mostly not).

I actually just really want to get them involved in what I do.

I volunteer for a not for profit organization that works with first time juvenile offenders and gives them a chance to change their lives using reading, virtues, and mentoring. Plus it affords them the opportunity to have their record expunged if they’re offence free at 18.  The program is called Reading For Life.  I’ve been working with it since it’s inception, and I love every minute of it.

Kids get placed into groups with similar reading skills and then choose a book to read together.  Some only read one book, some go through as many as 5 in a session.  The group mentors help shepherd the group time which involves discussing concepts and actions of the books, getting the kids to journal and talk about the stories.

In the groups we also introduce the concept of virtues to the kids. We use 7 virtues, the 4 Aristolean: Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude; and the 3 Thomist: Faith/Fidelity, Hope, Charity (Eros, Phileo, Agape).  N.B. This would be as in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.  We get the kids to start looking at the situations in the books, weighing them and seeing if the actions are virtuous or not.  Slowly, and without them really realizing it, we begin to help them transfer this skill to their own lives.

Recently I read a blog at Barnesandnobel.com talking about the decline of reading fiction and the decline of empathy. The author states:

A novel is like a puzzle.  As soon as we start reading it, we begin trying to figure it out.  We compare our own reactions to certain situations with the reactions of the characters in the story.  When these reactions differ, we are compelled to put ourselves into the shoes of other people, and see things from a different perspective.  The more often we do this, the easier it is for us to see universal truths and gain insight into the human condition–not just our personal condition, but the condition of other people in this world.  This is empathy.

It’s so true.  This is what we get to do. We get to connect them to worlds beyond their own, and expand their perspectives, hopes and dreams. This can be so much fun, especially with the books they read.  All kinds of stuff comes up.

Like last summer, I had a group that read Ellen Hopkins’s Crank , Jodi Piccoult’s The Pact,  and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. That group of girls dove head first into questions about suicide, teen pregnancy, drug use, and found themselves weighing questions like “Is it always good to keep a secret?” and “What kind of expectations do you feel other people set for you that weigh you down?” and even “Am I aware of how I treat other people?”  Fascinating stuff.

We have such fun with these groups.  Not only do we allow there to  be an element of fun (and good snacks) but deliberately disassociate with schools, so the kids never see the mentors as teachers. On top of that, none of the mentors ever know what their kids did to get there, so they don’t have to live under the burden of what we might think of their lapses in judgement.

There is also an element of service that gets brought into the mix.  Each group does a service project that corresponds to the book that the group chose.  The girls that read  Twilight went to work at a local blood bank.  A group that read Life of Pi  painted an amazing mural of jungle scenes on a clinic for occupational and physical therapy for kids.  See.  Isn’t Richard Parker so very cute?  The kids that read Kite Runner and Persepolis  volunteered with an organization that sent aid packets to refugees in Afghanistan.

Mostly, I want to know authors because I want to tell them about how their books are getting used.  I want to tell Suzanne Collins how kids who have been in trouble for fighting latched a hold of Katniss, and  learned about how to keep their temper and be wiser about their choices.  I want to tell Orson Scott Card that a 16 yr old boy who had given up on so much and hadn’t read a book in 3 years started Enders Game and hasn’t stopped since.  He’s your hugest proselytizer too, Orson, you would be amazed at how many people he’s convinced to read the series.  I wish I could show Jay Asher the anonymous encouragement cards the group made after reading Thirteen Reasons Why  and how they prowled the library sticking them in their favorite books for people to find.  I wish Jodi Picoult could hear a girl almost cry when she realized she could speak her mind and not be yelled at, when she questioned religion during the reading of Change of Heart. She had never been allowed to say she didn’t believe before, and by the time she was done with the group, she was open to faith that brings life.  Neil Gaiman, I bet you would have loved to be in on the conversation among the group that read your book, and enjoyed their trip to work at a graveyard, and think about legacy and life.  I wish you could all see what your books are doing.  Your imagination is changing lives.  I think you would get such a kick out of these kids.  Most of society would write them off.  Your writing helps them change course.

And it really is, you know.  We have an incredible success rate.  Our non-recidivism rate is very good, especially compared to kids who are just expected to do community service.  Beyond that, we have on going relationships with kids who now think they have different opportunities.  Many times they’ve seen that a different life is possible. Sometimes it just helps to get a different view of history, a different perspective, and you can get out of the mundane trajectory of your life.

You should check out our website, it’s in the process of getting upgraded, because recently we received funding by our county to be an official part of the Juvenile Justice System.

Couple quick stories I love from groups over the years.

The group that read Twilight was staunchly pro-Edward at the beginning, scarily, droolily pro-Edward.  After we had many conversations of the nature of love, brotherly, sexual, self, and sacrificial love, the group unanimously though he was a controlling ass, and cared about himself more than he cared about Bella, and that she was as co-dependent as they come.    The young teens that read Lord of the Flies had the unique opportunity to speak with a renowned cultural anthropologist, and went to a university to assist in a fetal pig dissection.   (Big shudder to most of us, but three low-income forgotten teen boys thought they had died and gone to heaven).  I’ve ended up with some ongoing mentorships due to this program, and one girl I worked with was removed from her home just after her group was done.  She had never thought she was smart enough to graduate, and as she began to change in the group, she began to dream. I was so happy to celebrate her graduation two years later.

So someone tell John Green that Looking for Alaska changed the lives of some awesome teens, and Paolo Baciagalupi that we can’t pronounce his name but Shipbreaker inspired some great conversations about loyalty, family, and sacrifice between some inner city teen boys, and J.K. Rowlings that without Harry Potter  this whole program would never have been dreamed up, and tell Christopher Paul Curtis that Bud not Buddy helped a kid on the fast track to gang life imagine a different possibility.  Tell them to keep writing.  Tell them to keep imagining. Tell them to be my friend, because I will tell them this all the time, and then bug them to donate books to Reading for Life.  Or maybe put the decal on the back of their cars. Or maybe make them wear a reading for life T-shirt.   Or….

Also my sincere apologies.  I was just typing away at this post, when it posted up on WP like multiple times.  Sorry if you got notified frequently, or got an incomplete version of the post.

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