Dayton Daily News
Making connection through story
Jailed parents able to reach their children through the work of local nonprofit Story Chain.
Story Chain is a local nonprofit with an unusual mission — connecting children with their incarcerated parents by creating high-quality recordings of the moms and dads reading stories to their kids. Founded in 2015 and just recently hitting its stride, it’s the brainchild of educator Jonathan Platt, who found a way to transform his love of books and reading into a project that builds bridges that can change peoples’ lives when they’re going through very difficult times. We caught up with him this week to talk about Story Chain and his passion for the work. — Ron Rollins, community impact editor.
Dayton Daily News: Last year, you made a pitch for project funding for Story Chain from UpDayton, and you got it. They have a nice description of what you do on their website: “Reading aloud to children builds their vocabularies, increases their chances of academic success later in life, and strengthens their relationships with their caretakers. But for many incarcerated parents, providing these benefits to their kids isn’t an option. Story Chain wants to fix that. With the help of libraries, community centers, and volunteers, Story Chain will provide parents in detention facilities with children’s books to read aloud, coaches to help them rehearse and record, and mp3 players to send home.” Correct?
Jonathan Platt: That’s it. Put more succinctly, we connect children with parents through digital media using literacy.
DDN: Are all the parents incarcerated?
Platt: Not necessarily. Story Chain started out that way four years ago, but now schools are also interested in it for autistic students. One of the things I want to do is to measure the program by collecting data as we go about whether we are affecting students’ behavioral, social and academic skills — I went to schools for help on how to best determine that, and they in turn said this may be something they may want to use themselves. One teacher has a student with autism who can’t settle down, and wondered if Story Chain can help by recording parents so they can read to their child while they’re in class — say, a book the whole class is reading and that student could hear it from their mom, and it could be more calming and help him. That would be a big shift in what we’ve been doing up till now.
DDN: Talk about the program up to now.
Platt: It’s working with incarcerated parents, instilling the joy of reading and making their reading abilities transform into magical wonderful voices that can be shared with their children. We go into the county jail and teach a series of workshops with the parents there. The first workshops are book discussions and book choice. We have them fill out a survey, getting book histories from them and their child: what is their reading level, do they read to their child, are there books in the home? Then we get down to work ... choosing the right book, getting to know the books, having fun with them. The next three or four sessions we work on reading and voice delivery — elocution, pacing, taking the stress out of their voice, getting silly with a voice. How to convey dialogue. Each parent records two books.
DDN: You’re teaching them to perform.
Platt: Yes, I’m teaching them to perform their voice.
DDN: What did you mean about taking the stress out?
Platt: Well, if a parent is talking to a child over the phone or in the visitation room at the jail, there’s a lot of stress there — you know, “Just because I’m in jail, I’m still your mother,” that sort of intonation. We help them remove that when they’re reading these stories.
DDN: You’re offering a fresh avenue for the relationship.
Platt: I couldn’t say it any better. I’m paving a new road for communication. I want those stories to transcend those relationships.
DDN: You’re using standard kids’ books?
Platt: Yes, books that are still in print, and along with the mp3 players, we give copies to the kids. Fresh copies — not the books used in the jail, for security reasons. We use a lot of Dr. Seuss. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is huge ... it drops down into their soul. There are some passages in there where you would think Dr. Seuss was in prison — the waiting place? When I read it aloud to the parents at the workshops, I cry sometimes. And I’m OK with that, because I love the idea of putting all of yourself into a reading.
DDN: Can you tell a story about a particular family you’ve worked with?
Platt: Madison Payne is Story Chain’s first and longest sustaining client. She’s 7 years old. We first met her when she was 3, right after her mother, Erin Payne, died of an opioid overdose in 2015. We drove to Madison’s grandmother’s
house in Blanchester County. Erin died very soon after she was released from prison and only four months after we recorded her voice. We were bringing her the last, and possibly only, audio recording of her mother’s voice. My daughter Stella came with me, she was 6 at the time, and insisted Madison put on the headphones. Madison heard her mother’s voice reading stories. She looked confused. We left.
DDN: But you saw her again recently.
Platt: Yes. When Madison turned 5 she started asking her grandmother, Tara DiMario, for the mp3 player. For the past two years she has been listening to her mother’s voice and following along with the books. When we learned that her old mp3 player was fizzling out, we set in motion to meet with her again at a local library.
DDN: Do you usually meet the children at a library?
Platt: Yes. Libraries have become local out-reach centers between us and the local community. The library is where we first meet the child and create a mutual rapport. It is also the place where the child receives the mp3 player and the accompanied books. So we reserved a reading room at the Wilmington branch and were joined with Aidan Curran, a University of Dayton graduate, UpDayton volunteer and UD videographer and Shaughn Philips, director of Young Adult Ministry for the downtown Dayton Catholic churches. Aidan has been a Story Chain volunteer through UpDayton for the last eight months. Shaughn and I just recently met and he’s looking for more volunteer opportunities for his ministry.
DDN: How did it go?
Platt: This time when Madison put on the headphones she didn’t appear confused at all. Her eyes lit in the way that can only be described as an intense listening mode. Grandma picked up an ear bud and listened as well. In a few moments, the room flooded with tears. The only dry eyes in the room was Madison — who was beyond excited, turned to her grandma and demanded, “Hurry Mamaw, let’s go home so I can read these books that mama is reading.”
DDN: Good story. How many people have you worked with since 2015?
Platt: Story Chain has reached over a 100 children and 60 parents, most in Greene, Montgomery and Clark counties. Half of those have been in the last year — I’ve really ramped up. The children of the incarcerated are a disenfranchised bunch. From the very beginning we have kept track of our clients’ children. One of our long-term goals is to uproot the stigma of having an incarcerated parent and create a community of children who can lean on one another. This spring we will host a day at the Greene County library where all the past participants and families come together for games, stories, food, door prizes, mp3 player updates and a shared experience with incarcerated family members. We will have our data-mining hats on!
DDN: What kind of data are you gathering?
Platt: I want to know the parent’s reading level, their reading history and their level of reading to their children. It’s a 20-question survey they take. And I have a survey at the end of workshop as well, measuring their commitment to the program, how excited they are about it, and whether they’ll continue reading to their children – and have they changed in any way with literacy. Some say, “I’ve never read a book before, this is pretty cool.” With the kids, we look for what we call “ice cream happy” ... for reading, and for the parents reading to them and the difference between those. We find the kids are much more happy after they’ve heard their parents read to them. Other children say listening to their parent’s voice calms their anger, lowers anxieties and reminds them of their own self-worth. Madison’s excitement to read the books her mother recorded is more data for us and a reminder we are providing a real link to the child’s mental health. We want the data because it gives credence to what we’re doing, and because funders want it.
DDN: Speaking of which, how are you funded?
Platt: Right now, the biggest source is from the Victims of Crime Act from the Ohio Attorney General’s office, a federal program they administer. All the drug money that’s confiscated is put into one big pool and goes to the victims of crime. I got $42,000 this year, so I’m able to pay myself, finally. Also, grants from Dayton Rotary, UpDayton and some others, and I work closely with Greene Giving, the Greene County Community Foundation – my fiscal partner. They run Friends of Story Chain, which is how I manage the operation, through them. I’ve also had a lot of in-kind donations – the Greene County Public Library has given thousands of books and the Greene County Sheriff ’s Department has given $1,500 worth of mp3 players.
“One of our long-term goals is to uproot the stigma of having an incarcerated parent and create a community of children who can lean on one another.” Jonathan Platt
DDN: Is the organization just you?
Platt: Me and a lot of great volunteers, and a great board. I work out of my spare room in our house in Yellow Springs.
DDN: Where did you get the idea?
Platt: I just thought it was a great idea, and I really just love reading. I’d heard about similar programs. There’s one in Chicago called Aunt Mary’s Story Time, there’s one in New York called Daddy and Me. Both do a marvelous job, but what I do differently is that I have many more workshops. I’m creating a relationship with the parent, creating a performing experience — which is a skill I believe they will be able to use later on. And I bring in a lot of partners – D Js, voice specialists, actors. And politicians.
Platt: Sure. They’re good communicators. They have a gift for gab, they know intonation, delivery and they know how to communicate and spin a story. They also know grant money.
DDN: What’s your background, pre-Story Chain?
Platt: I’m a teacher. I adjunct English at Central State. I’ve taught at Wilberforce, Clark State, Sinclair and Wright State. My wife is a second-grade teacher at Mills Lawn Elementary in Yellow Springs. I got my master’s from Wright State in rhetoric two years ago for this program — studying voice to the ear, sonic literacy. We learned a great book by Walter Ong, “Orality and Literacy,” and it’s all about how there is a second oral literacy coming; we listen to and hear stories now as much as we read them — with recorded books, podcasts, our ear buds, and all that. A “new orality.” I like that; with what we do at Story Chain, I feel like the mouths of the parents are dropping into the ears of the child.