The Liberating Power of a Good Read
Volunteers from DU's Book Stack join forces to help stock a library for parolees
At the Book Stack — a University of Denver resource chock full of used, new and rare treasures — a team of volunteer lit lovers believes a passion for reading is infectious.
That’s why they work so hard to put good books into circulation — sorting through donations, stocking the shelves, staffing the store and, most important, connecting readers with page-turners. The team’s most recent match-making project involves procuring novels, memoirs, self-help guides and whodunits for a library at a Lakewood halfway house operated by Intervention Community Correction Services (ICCS), a nonprofit community corrections agency that helps parolees prepare for life after incarceration.
“The idea is to integrate them into the community,” says DU alumna Heidi Gesso (MA ’77), an ICCS volunteer who works with parolees, helping them pursue GEDs and develop job skills. The more they read, the better they read. And the better they read, Gesso adds, the better prepared they are for testing and for the employment search.
But first, they need something suitable to read. “These are basically what you would call reluctant readers,” she says, noting that until recently, the facility’s on-site library didn’t offer much to reduce reluctance. “I looked at the books on the shelves and thought, ‘These all need to be replaced with books the guys can't wait to check out,’” Gesso recalls. Not only were the titles of little interest to the parolees — think tomes about tea parties and instruction manuals for stitching aprons — “they were really tattered and really torn.”
Not surprisingly, those books sat on the shelves, untouched and beckoning dust. Determined to remedy matters, Gesso began spreading the word to anyone who would listen: Suitable titles wanted. Urgently.
News of her quest reached Louise Rouse, a Book Stack volunteer who believes books have no business languishing unused. She decided she’d try to find appealing titles from the Book Stack’s inventory, purchase them and then route them to ICCS. That way, she’d help two excellent causes: ICCS and University Libraries. (As a program of the University Library Association, the Book Stack directs its proceeds to DU’s libraries and their collections and programs.)
Once they learned of Rouse’s plan, the 11 other Book Stack volunteers insisted on contributing. “When they found out about the project, everyone wanted to jump in and help out,” Rouse says, adding that a can-do spirit animates the team. “The devotion to reading and to getting books into the hands of people, that’s kind of the fiber of the place.”
Armed with a list of preferred authors and genres, the team began scouring every cranny in the Book Stack, snagging copies of favorites by James Patterson, Louis L’Amour, Harlan Coben, Stephen King and Tom Clancy. They also hunted for self-help books geared toward men and memoirs offering tales of adversity and triumph. (A reliable favorite among the parolees, Gesso says, is Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements,” whose subtitle, “A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom,” resonates with readers looking ahead to a life outside of confinement.)
Within no time, Book Stack volunteers had purchased and boxed up about 200 volumes and dispatched them to Lakewood. When the DU campus reopens after the coronavirus outbreak, Rouse says, the volunteers vow to find even more books.
That’s good news for Gesso, whose initial goal was to place 500 new titles on the Lakewood facility’s shelves. When that goal was realized, she upped it to 1,000, and now, with that already surpassed, she’s hoping for 1,500. That’s a respectable collection for a community of 250 readers.
Not long after the new books began arriving in Lakewood, the parolees themselves unpacked, categorized and shelved the titles. More important, they started checking them out, reading them at leisure and bringing them to tutorial sessions. “In a two-week time period,” Gesso says, “there were 125 books checked out.”
Even more satisfying, many of the library patrons have told Gesso how much it means to them that donors have considered them worthy of popular books in good condition. These are men, she says, who are used to parental and societal negligence. Many of them recount tales of life amid families shattered by drug abuse and domestic violence. “Growing up,” one parolee wrote in a letter to others at risk of falling through the cracks, “we never really had a stable place to live. Most of the time we stayed in motel rooms all bunched up, sleeping on roach infested floors. My parents would leave us at the motel without any food for weeks, which caused me to have to go out and steal food from the stores to feed my brothers and sisters.”
The Book Stack’s work to bring meaningful reading to diverse audiences reinforces the mission of DU’s libraries, says Michael Levine-Clark, dean of University Libraries. “For years, the Book Stack and its dedicated volunteers have done so much for the public good — on campus by supporting our collections and in the community by connecting readers with books that help them find information, insight, entertainment and escape.”
For her part, Rouse thrills to think that the parolees will benefit from reading much the way she does. “For the while that you are reading it, it is yours,” she says of the book. “It is your own little world.”