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Reading for Life donates books

Catherine Owers | Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Reading for Life, the largest diversion program for juvenile offenders in St. Joseph County, will celebrate World Book Day on Tuesday by donating books to youth at the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC).

A diversion program is a form of sentencing designed to enable offenders of law to avoid criminal charges by completing various requirements, such as education, restitution or completion of community service hours.

 Dr. Alesha Seroczynski, the program’s director, said program leaders chose to distribute John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” because they felt it was a relatable story that would easily generate discussion. 

“It’s a really serious coming-of-age story, something we knew would really resonate with these youth,” Seroczynski said.

Seroczynski said many of the youth at the center do not have their own personal libraries, so she likes that each participant will receive his or her own copy of the book.

“It’s a really deeply moving experience to give a young person a book and have them look at you with these wide, almost tear-filled eyes, and tell you this the first time someone has ever given them a book to keep, ” she said. “It’s a powerful moment.”

Participants in the program are often first-time offenders and learn virtue theory while reading, Seroczynski said. 

“We operate from a perspective of virtue ethics,” she said. “We use the stories to get students to talk about personal life applications of virtue theory.”

Leaders place participants in groups of no more than five people and assign two mentors to each group, Seroczynski said. The group meets in the community twice a week for 10 weeks.

“Together, they choose from several different genre options consistent with their reading ability,” Seroczynski said. “They choose one or more books to read together and they spend the week learning, discussing and journaling on virtue theory and personal-life applications of being virtuous, which, of course, involves emotions, ethical decision-making, being courageous, and having self-control.”

Caroline Kelleher, a program student mentor, said she has volunteered with the program for two years and is in her third mentoring group this semester.

One of the reasons I love Reading for Life is the involvement with the South Bend commutity,” Kelleher said. “It’s a rewarding experience to work with high-schoolers and watch them change over the course of our nine-week session.” 

The books are vehicles for discussions about life and issues the kids face, Kelleher said.

“The students I have worked with have started the program guarded and unwilling to share their thoughts, but by the end bond with each other and develop aspirations for their futures,” she said

Each group must also perform community service together. The service typically relates to one of the books the group has read, Seroczynski said. 

“A group that might read ‘The Boy in the Striped jajamass or ‘The Book Thief,’ they would probably go to the Jewish Federation of St. Joseps Valley and do community service there,” she said.   Seroczynski said, “Last summer the program expanded from only serving people in the diversion program to also servino boys in the detention facility. She said a lack of funding prevented the program from extending to girls in the detention facility

“The effect is actually stronger for boys than for girls in the diversion program,” Seroczynski said. “Based on that, when I was approached by the director for the JJC to take it into detention, we chose to work with boys.”

Seroczynski said the groups in the detention program have been very successful in the past year. 

“We’ve had excellent attendance and no behavior problems,” she said. “They actively read and participate in groups, and we’ve had some wonderful experiences with those boys.” 

Many participants in the detention program enjoy realistic stories, Seroczynski said. 

“We find that our boys in detention pick true stories or novels that could be true, like Holocaust novels, biographies, and biographical fiction.”

Seroczynski said 99 percent of participants in the program have not been prosecuted for re-offense. 

“We want to dissolve the label they have been given by becoming a juvenile delinquent,” she said. “We don’t want them to believe that just because they have walked through those doors at the JJC at one time that that’s where they’re going to spend the rest of their life.”

Seroczynski said the Reading For Life program aims to maintain participants’ hope for the future

“We want them to imagine a different kind of possible self,” she said. “Just because they committed one crime doesn’t mean that’s who they are or that’s they’re going to be doing for the rest of their life.” 

 Contact Catherine Owers at [email protected]