Interview with PEN Pals Book Club & Support Group Founder Olivia Stinson

As a lifelong bookworm, few things in the world make me feel more warm and fuzzy than when I hear about book clubs being created, especially for kids. But PEN Pals Book Club & Support Group based out of Charlotte, North Carolina is more than just an afternoon of storytime – it’s here to help promote literacy among children of incarcerated parents.

I recently got the chance to interview with their fearless founder, 19-year-old Olivia Stinson who was recently nominated as an honoree with the L’Oreal Women of Worth program, on how she got inspired to create PEN Pals, why she loves to read and what the biggest danger to not having a literacy program in schools is – something we all truly take for granted.

Heather Taylor: What’s your philosophy on reading?

Olivia Stinson: Reading gives you the ability to become great in your life. It has always been important to me and I consider it a major fundamental life skill. You need to be able to read to function in your everyday life. Sometimes people believe money will take the place of reading and I have explained to some of my peers that you have to be able to read to even be able to manage money.  I have found that being a good reader allows you to excel academically which allows you opportunities and takes you places that you might never have a chance to experience.

HT: What is the mission behind PEN Pals Book Club and Support Group?

OS: The mission behind PEN Pals Book Club & Support Group is to promote literacy among children of incarcerated parents and to help keep children of incarcerated parents out of trouble so they will not follow in their parents’ footsteps and become the incarcerated children of America. PEN Pals gives these young people mentors they can count on while exposing them to cultural, social and sporting activities as well as performing monthly community service projects. Research indicates that without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are 70% more likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps and end up incarcerated. We want to do what we can to change those statistics.

HT: How did you get inspired to create a program that promotes reading and literacy for children of incarcerated parents?

OS: At my church we sponsored a wonderful Christmas celebration for the Angel Tree Network, which involved the children of incarcerated parents. Unfortunately, we did not see these youths again until the next Christmas.  At that time, we presented a wonderful program for them followed by dinner and presentation of gifts.  For a long time, it had been my desire to do something special with the children of incarcerated parents other than just having a Christmas celebration. I wanted the youth at my church, Greenville Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, to develop a relationship with them. After researching this population, I found they often experienced lower academic performance due to their family situations.  I wanted to do something to make a difference in their lives and so in October 2007, I started “PEN Pals Book Club and Support Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents.”

HT: What’s the age group for kids who can join PEN Pals Book Club?

OS: If you are between the ages of 12 – 19, you are welcome to become a member.  If you are age 20 and over, you are welcome to become a mentor.  Our oldest mentor (who is also my grandmother!) is 73 years old and she brings to us a wealth of knowledge in the program.

HT: How did you come up with the name for PEN Pals?

OS: First we came up with the premise for the book club which was to serve as a support group for children of incarcerated parents.  The foundation for the group would be literacy-based and focused on the teens. We wanted to give these young people mentors they could count on when they needed encouragement.   During Thanksgiving dinner, we were discussing concept of the program and asked the family for ideas about the name.  It became a discussion over dinner and after many different ideas from family members, we settled on PEN Pals Book Club – PEN meaning “Peers Engaged and Networking.”

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