Reading is a pastime Jan Elzinga has loved since she was a child. From her high school days through her recent retirement, the Racine resident has kept a list of books she's read. And after leaving her job of 32 years at the Racine Dental Group two years ago, she has found time to share her passion for the written word with inmates at the Racine County Jail.
Elzinga is one of 14 members of Christ Church United Methodist who volunteer a few hours each month to deliver books to men and women incarcerated at the jail. Pushing a library cart from cell to cell, they offer inmates a selection of volumes - including popular fiction, self-help, Christian literature and poetry books - which they can borrow for two to three weeks. Each time the cart comes around, an inmate is allowed to pick two general books and, because the library service is run under the guidance of the jail chaplaincy, as many Christian books as they want, Elzinga explained.
"I really enjoy doing it," she said. "It is a good program."
Christ Church is one of several area congregations whose members donate their time to staff the library service, which has been available to inmates of the Racine County Jail for about 20 years, according to Loretta Hall. Hall, along with her husband Chuck, has coordinated the daytime portion of the library program, under the direction of Chaplain Merritt Adams, for the last two years. The Halls began volunteering with the jail library service about five years ago and took over the daytime operation after another local couple, who had coordinated it for at least 20 years, retired.
While the Halls' main interest in working at the jail is to be able to share Bibles and New Testaments (provided by The Gideons International) with the inmates, they appreciate the benefits that books, in general, can give the men and women in jail.
"Let's face it, there really isn't a lot for them to do in there," said Loretta, a member of the Community Church of the Nazarene. "To be able to provide them with something that will stimulate their minds helps them to develop skills they need - it helps them to build themselves up, instead of being trampled down."
Getting books into peoples' hands is also part of what drew Tammy Hayward, another volunteer from Christ Church, to give her time to the jail's library program.
"It not only keeps them occupied, but improves their vocabulary, and increases the types of skills they will need for getting a job when they get out," said Hayward, who has taught in the Racine Unified School District for 30 years.
Because she teaches during the day, Hayward coordinates the team of volunteers from her church who do evening shifts with the County Jail's library. Members of the team rotate shifts so that most of them work for three hours once a month, she explained.
When a call for volunteers went out in her congregation, the response was greater than expected, Hayward said. And while it took a little while to get all the paperwork done so that they could start to work, the process was not a difficult one, she said.
Each volunteer must fill out an application, submit a letter of recommendation and have no felonies on their record. They must also attend an orientation with the chaplain before making their first rounds with the library cart.
"It is not a difficult thing to do," Chuck Hall said of his time working with the jail library program. "Anyone who has the time can do it."
The recent influx of volunteers from Christ Church to the library program has allowed two new teams to be formed, increasing the frequency of delivery of books to the inmates, Loretta Hall said.
"Until recently, we were the only people here on Wednesday mornings," she said. "Now we have one group on Mondays and two on Wednesday."
That means that inmates now see books at least every other week, if not every week, rather once every 6-8 weeks, Hayward said.
"We feel we are making a difference," she said.
Lots of benefits
Along with the books they deliver, the library volunteers bring a "fresh face" to the inmates, Elzinga said.
"They appreciate us being able to tell them what the weather is like outside," she said.
The time they spend at the jail also benefits the volunteers.
"I get satisfaction out of knowing that I did something for men and women who can't get out and do it for themselves," Elzinga said. "I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't read."
While she was a little wary about going into the jail at first, Elzinga said she has never felt unsafe while volunteering there. An inmate trustee accompanies the volunteers on their rounds, she explained, and overall the inmates are very appreciative of the volunteers' efforts.
"We were all a little nervous at first," said Hayward, "But everyone has been very respectful and they are always happy to see us."
Reaching out to inmates, whether it is by delivering books or sharing scripture with them, is something Loretta Hall says she feels will enable them to make better decisions when they get out of jail.
"Helping them to build a strong spiritual and personal foundation enables them to make better choices so that they won't have to come back."
"We need to let people know that they aren't forgotten," she said. "They are God's people as much as we are God's people."