Unree Harrell is trying to make up for lost time—and thinks reading with his stepchildren may be a great way to do that. Harrell, now 38, went to prison at 18. When he was paroled last September after 20 years, he had missed his 21-year-old daughter’s entire childhood. He’s determined not to let the same thing happen with his two stepchildren, 9-year-old Ty’Lea and 7-year-old Donovan. He makes lunches, goes to PTA meetings and helps the kids with their homework. He and his fiancé Toni also read to them every day and make sure they have plenty of books.
So when the Oakland Reads Campaign joined forces last month with Open Gate Inc., to sponsor a family literacy celebration at the Oakland Public Library’s main branch, Harrell and his family were there looking through children’s books.
This book party offered face-painting, story time and cupcakes—and gave out 200 books, from Roaring Rockets to Good Night Little Bunny that families could take home for free. It attracted the usual crowd of mothers and young children looking for fun, educational activities on a Saturday afternoon.
Jasmine Fountain rolled in pushing her 10-month-old son David in a stroller. Maria Urbi arrives with her 2-year-old daughter, Paloma. “I’m always buying books so it’s cool to get some free ones,” Fountain says.
“And we’re always looking for something to do because it’s impossible to stay at home,” Urbi says. Paloma fidgets her way through a face-painting session and David toddles about, falling to the carpeted floor and getting up again.
For Oakland Reads, sponsoring events like this are a way to encourage young kids to read and to support parents’ involvement in that process.
“We want to help link students and families with literacy resources that encourage learning at school and at home so all of Oakland’s children are reading well,” says Sanam Jorjani, co-director of Oakland Literacy Coalition and its reading campaign, Oakland Reads.
“We know that parents and caregivers are their children’s first and most important teachers,” Jorjani says. “And we also know that increasing reading skills will help Oakland be the kind of thriving, safe and productive city that our children deserve.”
For Unree Harrell, reading and enjoying books with his kids is a pleasure he didn’t get to enjoy as a child. His parents both struggled with substance abuse issues and didn’t read to their children or have books in the house. Their only involvement in his education, Harrell says, was that “they yelled at me to do my homework.”
He didn’t really need the admonishment. Harrell says he was a good student and loved to read. “English was my favorite subject,” he says and he enjoyed mastering the rules of grammar and punctuation. He dropped out of high school to work and earn money, but was determined to get his GED while he was incarcerated.
“A lot of people in my family—my mother, father and sister—didn’t graduate,” he says. “It was important to me to show I had a high school education.”
Now he wants to share his love of reading with his kids. Ty’lea is already a strong reader so Harrell is focused mostly on helping Donovan improve his reading skills. “Last year he was not doing well,” he says. “He struggles with two- and three-syllable words. I help him sound out the words and consonant blends—like th and sh. At the last parent-teacher conference, she said his reading is growing by leaps and bounds and that he’s now reading at above his grade level.”
The library event was organized by Open Gate, a group that assists ex-prisoners as they reenter society, as part of a series of Fathers and Families Literacy Workshops cosponsored by the Oakland Public Library’s Second Start program. The workshops aims to help men coming out of prison on parole or probation bond with their children through reading, says Open Gate co-founder Denise Richardson.
“Most of the guys who come to us from incarceration do not come from stable homes and they don’t remember anyone ever reading to them,” Richardson. “Our guys want to do it differently, they don’t want their kids to go in the cycle from school to juvenile hall to jail. They want to get them into education.”
Second Start’s Family Literacy Specialist Ann Daniel works with groups of parolees who have children in their lives, helping them to bond and play with their children through books and literary activities, Richardson says. Dads are encouraged to sign up for library cards for themselves and their children and to use library facilities and activities. Several dads have also signed up for tutoring with Second Start to improve their own reading skills, she says.