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Library program helps youth offenders minimize exposure to legal system

May 23, 2012 - By Emily Etheredge, Staff Writer

The Riverton Branch Library has taken advantage of the power of literature with a new program, Changing Lives through Literature -- an alternative program to formal court action for first-time youth offenders.

By incorporating small group literature-based discussions with journal writing, troubled juveniles are given the opportunity to reflect upon their lives, learn to be students, learn to function in society and become better citizens.

Teen librarian Shari Haskins said the program is based off a model developed by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, which began in 1991.

"The program was started by those who believe that bringing carefully selected works of literature and juvenile offenders together can help the youth gain insight into their lives and behavior while learning that they are not alone," Haskins said.

Haskins and branch manager Gloria Brodle worked with the Youth Services Department to introduce to the teens the young adult novel "Breathing Underwater" by Alex Flynn, which is about a 16-year-old who gets in trouble with the law. The program debuted in Fremont County in January.

Brodle said the majority of the teens learned to be more reflective through the process of reading the book.

"Seeing how their actions created some of the situations they were in, the teens began to realize they did have a voice," Brodle said. "One teen at our last group said that she felt if she had attended this group the last time she got in trouble, she didn't think she would have gotten in trouble again."

The program also lets the teens meet other teens who share similar battles.

"Many of the teens were nervous about the reading assignments, assuming the book choice would be above them or boring," Brodle said. "They were pleasantly surprised to see that the book was very relevant to their own lives, easy and compelling to read. One teen said he used to read and planned on reading more after his experience with us."

A lot of the students would read ahead of the weekly assignments in their excitement to see where the characters in the book would end up.

Both Haskins and Brodle said many of the teens returned to the library after the program ended to get more books to read.

"A lot of the teens felt the reading assignments would be additional work on top of their regular homework," Haskins said. "They were pleased to discover that this reading was nothing like what they were doing in school. They seemed to find the book to be compelling and interesting."

Riverton juvenile probation officer Sean Robertson said the program was a wonderful way to get first-time offenders to do the class.

"I really give Shari props for selecting good reading material that really engages the kids to want to read," Robertson said. "We do this program in lieu of maybe having them do community service and have found that it has had a really positive outcome."

Robertson said the reading of the book was a non-confrontational way to talk to the teens and it also provided a mini-counseling session.

"Shari gave the kids opportunities to journal along with the reading assignments, and through that, a lot of the kids were able to process and reflect different emotions they might not have connected with previously," Robertson said.

Haskins used journaling techniques, critical thinking skills and think-aloud sessions that helped the participants describe thoughts evoked by the text.

"The teens learned how to analyze a fictional character, and we heard from a lot of the teens that they never liked to read anything until they were given the opportunity to read this book," Haskins said.

Brodle said she feels as if this program has been one of the most exciting programs she has been a part of in all her years at the library.

"Shari and I have been so gratified to have a chance to work with the Youth Services Department to create a program that is valid and successful," Brodle said. "We have witnessed these teens make make a real effort to change their behavior and take a different track in their lives."

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