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Fresno Sheriff’s Reading Posse looking for a few good recruits
by Jason Smithberg
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims is looking to deputize a few children. But instead of recruiting new deputies to patrol Fresno County, she’s trying to recruit children to pick up a book and discover the joy of reading.
Recent statistics show 60 percent of America’s inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of all juvenile offenders have reading difficulties. In Fresno County alone, incarcerated youth and those in continuation schools are typically four to five grade levels behind students enrolled in traditional schools. According to the website begintoread.com, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
For Mims, the message behind the data is clear: To help reduce crime, you need to increase literacy. At the same time, by fostering a love of reading in children, you expose them to a world of life-enhancing possibilities they might not otherwise have.
“Reading doesn’t just keep kids out of trouble, it expands their knowledge, improves their writing and vocabulary skills and is a great way to relax,” Mims said, adding that she enjoyed reading as a child and wanted the children of Fresno County to have an opportunity to experience that same passion.
Mims’ belief in the power of reading to change young lives led to the establishment of the Sheriff’s Reading Posse in 2012. In partnership with the Fresno County Public Library, Central Unified School District and the Fresno County Office of Education, the program is designed to place books in the hands of children, especially those living in some of the county’s most impoverished and troubled neighborhoods.
Here’s how it works: Fresno County sheriff’s deputies carry donated books in canvas bags in their patrol cars. When they come across children in the neighborhoods they’re patrolling, they distribute the books free of charge.
The Sheriff’s Reading Posse has distributed about 5,000 books since its implementation, said Lt. Kathy Curtice of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. She said books are distributed to children of all ages but most have been given to those between 2 and 7 years old.
“We are able to get new books into the hands of children to take home and keep,” said Mims, who said she hopes the Sheriff’s Reading Posse will be duplicated in some form by law enforcement agencies nationwide. “Many of these kids are from areas that are underserved and there is little opportunity to get to a library or reading may not be emphasized in the home.”
Community response has been “nothing but positive,” Curtice said. The deputies who hand out the books know that once they pop their trunks and pull out the telltale canvas bags, children will flock to them to receive their gifts -- and ideally, take a crucial first step toward an appreciation for reading and a brighter future.
“If we can start to impact the kids early on with something positive, we can then help them to do the basic things like fill out job applications, become employed [and] earn their money that way instead of committing crimes,” Curtice said.
While children who live in the blighted neighborhoods of Fresno County are the primary targets of the Sheriff’s Reading Posse, the program is intended for children everywhere, encouraging them to put down the video game consoles, quit texting and log out of Facebook.
“Education is the key for them to have possibilities open,” said Jonathan Waltmire, public information coordinator for the Fresno County Library, expressing a sentiment that applies equally to all children. “Reading is the first step, then education, and then they can [look] forward to new possibilities.”
Kaiser Permanente and the Fresno County Federal Credit Union were among the groups that donated nearly 3,000 books to the Sheriff’s Reading Posse when it first started. Major entertainment businesses including The Walt Disney Company and Marvel Comics, drawn to the program’s vision and apparent success among the neighborhoods where books have been distributed, have also offered donations.
Interested in helping to recruit more children to the Sheriff’s Reading Posse? Waltmire said members of the community can drop off new or like-new books at any Fresno County library, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office or any of its sub stations. (For a complete list of recommended titles, go to www.readinginaction.org.
) Financial contributions are also welcome.
Jason Smithberg has covered the Fresno State football team for FSBulldogs.com and is currently an on-air personality for Valley Public Radio, FM-89.3.