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.”

HT: What is the B.E.A.R. Book Club?

OS: “BE A Reader (B.E.A.R.) Book Club” was established for the younger children (ages 2-11) in February 2009. Often parents came to the meetings to bring their teens but they had to just wait with the younger kids until the meeting was over.  The younger children would ask over and over why they could not have a book club.  After really getting PEN Pals going, we found a wonderful young lady at our church that embraced the idea, had a true love for children and B.E.A.R. launched their first meeting.  It has been a wonderful experience for our young children and they look forward to each meeting.

HT: Can you share any great success stories about the kids in the program?

OS: Literacy skills have increased with our monthly or bi-monthly novel readings, report card grades have improved and these youths are getting in less trouble. The kids in the program now participate in programs and activities at school that they wouldn’t ordinarily engage in. Several of the youths have gone on to college. Self-esteem and self-confidence are also improving. We have parents who have actually cried as they shared with us how their children hated reading and now they read the book we give them late into the night – and they look forward to the next book! The youth from the Angel Tree program now look forward to coming to the Christmas program.  And the joy for me is that they all look forward to coming to our monthly meeting to see their other friends and to just have fun.

HT: What do you believe is the biggest danger to not having literacy programs in schools?

OS: Without literacy programs in schools, children will never reach their full potential. If children don’t learn the importance of reading in school then they will miss out on many opportunities later on in life. It also causes children to lose their focus in school. When I was in grade school I was always taught that once my work was finished, I should read in my free time. If children aren’t reading in their free time at school then it will lead to idle minds and unfortunately idle minds can sometimes lead to bad behavior or activities that can sometimes lead them down a path to becoming incarcerated.

HT: You’ve been nominated as an honoree for Woman of Worth with L’Oreal – congrats! How did you feel when you first told you were chosen?

OS: Being selected as a 2012 L’Oreal Woman of Worth is absolutely amazing. It still seems surreal! I screamed, I cried, my heart skipped a couple of beats and then I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. To have been chosen as one of ten out of such a large pool of applicants was so absolutely wonderful. I consider it such a blessing that at 19 years old I can say that I am a L’Oreal Paris International Woman of Worth – I guess I just thought of myself as a teenager. I was just doing what I had been taught and that was to “love my neighbor as myself.” I still thank God everyday for such an honor; for bringing me this far in my life and I look forward to the journey that lies ahead of me. I know this is only the beginning of where PEN Pals is getting ready to go. I believe we are moving to new heights and I carry an attitude of gratitude, thanking God for bringing us this far. And in the words of The Pointer Sisters, “I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it, I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”

HT: Are you a big reader yourself?

OS: I love to read and I read all the time! I began carrying books when I began to walk.  My family would read to me all the time, often reading the same book over and over several times a day.  I started reading when I was three and that became very important to me as well as one of my favorite hobbies. I actually started my first book club at my grandmother’s daycare – I always enjoyed reading to the other kids in the daycare and sharing the wonderful adventures with them. It is rare that I am without a book or magazine or some form of reading material.  Some of my favorite books include “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “A Raisin in the Sun”, “The Other Wes Moore”, books by Sharon Draper and other books that deal with teen and young adult issues.  I also like self-help and fashion books, especially “Style” by Lauren Conrad.

HT: Are you in college? If so, what are you majoring in and what do you aspire to do?

OS: I am a sophomore honors student at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, NC.  My future goals include continuing my education by pursuing a degree in Business Administration learning how to properly nurture and care for people. To be able to assist the children of incarcerated population properly, I plan to educate myself and learn how to better manage people as I acquire a better command of leadership.  I plan to further my education while gaining knowledge in Nonprofit Management to set up a foundation that will accommodate the needs of children and families of incarcerated parents. It is my goal to hire these children and their families to work in an environment that is not judgmental because of their situation. I want to give them the opportunity to give back to others who have and will walk in the same path. I would also like to complete fashion training at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.  It is my dream to become an Editor-In-Chief of my own fashion magazine and have a world famous clothing boutique.

HT: Where do you see PEN Pals Book Club heading in five years?

OS: I see PEN Pals Book Club with several chapters in the Charlotte and surrounding areas and at least one chapter in each state nationwide.  I also envision chapters for PEN Pals and B.E.A.R. Book Clubs and Support Groups on Facebook and having a population that reads the books and participate in the book discussions with us.  I believe these organizations are a great prototype that can be used around the country for children of incarcerated parents and their support groups.

Image via ShutterStock.

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