“It’s a simple idea with a big impact,” Judith Dullnig says.
Two Saturdays a month, women from the Austin and Houston areas head to one of the six state women’s prisons served by Women’s Storybook Project of Texas. They bring children’s books, laptops, voice recorders the size of a thumb drive, large mailing envelopes and blank CDs.
At the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, the volunteers gather in the library with about 20 inmates and talk about reading to children. They remember the stories their mothers read them: “Goodnight Moon,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Go, Dog. Go!” The inmates share if they heard from their children after they sent a book and a CD audio recording of them reading that book last month.
The volunteers don’t ask why the women are there. They don’t want to know. They connect with the women as mothers and talk about their children.
“Women are women anywhere,” says Storybook board member Linda Cox, who has been volunteering since 2008. “We talk about what the program means to them and what it means to the kids. It breaks down any barriers.”
Then the inmates choose a book for each of their children from stacks that fill two tables at the back of the room. The book and the CD might be the only connection they will have with their children that month. The books and CDs go all around Texas, but that month also to Michigan and Mexico — wherever the kids live.
The inmates put their names on a schedule to record their narration. Once their name is called, they make their way to a recording room, where a volunteer sits with a voice recorder.
“Hi, Nico. It’s Mommy,” Shanna Coulter begins. “I’m going to read you a book today called “Mouse Tales.” She then reads the chapter book for her 7-year-old son. Her voice gets animated as she shares the mouse’s adventures. After she finishes, she says, “I love you, baby … see you soon.”
She will then take the recorder to a nearby room to have it transferred onto a CD by another volunteer. Coulter then decorates a CD cover. Women’s Storybook Project will mail the CD and the book to Nicholas the next week.
“I love reading to him,” she says. “They say he’s so excited when he hears the voice. It’s Mom.”
Coulter is in prison for heroin possession and burglary. The earliest she would be released is in August. In March, she hadn’t seen Nicholas since he last visited three months before. She worries about what their reunion will be like when she is released. She will need to gain her family’s trust again, “to do things right,” she says.
The Women’s Storybook Project has kept her connected to Nicholas. He can replay the CD again and again and hear her voice.
In 2003, Judith Dullnig began the program in one Texas prison with just 25 books and five volunteers. Today it’s in six prisons, with more waiting to be included. Last year, mothers recorded 2,578 books. The program has 191 volunteers who each agree to record stories three to four times a year.
Dullnig has won three governor’s awards for volunteering. The program has won a United Methodist Church Peace with Justice Award, a Union for Reform Judaism Irving J. Fain Social Action Award and a Partners in Caring Tanner Foundation grant. It has been named a model program by the National Crime Prevention Council.
With all of its success, Dullnig always remembers the children who will be listening to their mother’s voice, sometimes for the first time.
The loss of a mother
Dullnig first heard about the Storybook Project program — which was started in Chicago by Lutheran Social Services — when she was visiting a friend in Louisville, Ky., around 2000. It tugged at her heart, she says. “I think of them reading, and I remember reading to my child.”
Dullnig would read “Goodnight Moon,” “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” and “Amelia Bedelia” books to her son Austin, now 38, and daughter Hadley, 36. When Austin was 12 and she still wanted to read these stories, “My son would roll his eyes,” she remembers.
Like the inmates’ children, Dullnig understands what it’s like to not have a mother to read her stories. Her own mother was diagnosed with polio when Dullnig was 7. Constance Grimshaw was in an iron lung and then died when Dullnig was 8.
Dullnig’s father, Robert Johnson, was serving in World War II when he was killed by the Nazi S.S. near Prague in April 1945, just two months before Dullnig was born.
Until her mother died, she grew up with stepfather Alfred Grimshaw and younger half-brothers Al, who was 2 when her mom died, and Scott, who was a baby. They all have her mother’s eyes; she has reconnected with them as adults.
Her mother’s death led to a battle for custody of Dullnig. When she was 11, she went to live in Vermont with her mother’s youngest sister, Elizabeth, who had married one of her father’s best friends, Russell Tidd. They already had three children, Connie, 7, Jenny, 5, and Steve, 2. They thought of her as a sister.
Dullnig, born in Providence, R.I., found her way to Texas when she was a junior in high school and Tidd became an immigration officer along the Texas-Mexico border. She met her husband, Jon, through his sister, Jean, who was in her high school class.
Her freshman year of college she went to Trinity University and then transferred to the University of Texas to become a teacher. Jon Dullnig was already there.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” she says. For a while she dated other people. But eventually they dated, even after he graduated and went to work in Dallas for Firestone. They married in June 1967.
Comfortable being in new environments
Dullnig’s childhood and early adulthood taught her to be adaptable — to handle strange environments. Between her junior and senior years of college, she traveled around Europe on very little money. She loved it.
When Jon graduated officers’ candidate school in the Navy and shipped out three months after they got married, she followed him for seven months from port to port around the Mediterranean. Between ports, she went to Paris and took a military train to Berlin. Later, they spent two years stationed in Aruba, where she was a teacher and he inspected petroleum for the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the Caribbean and South America. They climbed Machu Picchu before it became touristy.
The Dullnigs headed to graduate school in Michigan, where she got a master’s in educational psychology and he studied business. Then, before heading to work, they went to Europe for a few months. They’ve lived in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and moved back to Austin in 1994.
Following in her grandfather’s footsteps
Dullnig’s grandfather, Leonard Robinson, was known for his generosity. She credits him with being her biggest role model. He never talked about volunteering and giving back. He just did it. “Everyone knew him,” she says. “He was always giving things to people or having people over for lunch or dinner.”
She remembers going to the nursing home with him when he brought the residents flowers.
“You could be meaningful to a lot of people,” he told her.
She remembered his message when she and a friend started a Brownie troop for girls with intellectual disabilities while in college and when she volunteered as a young adult living in Chicago to drive a senior — Mr. Mulholland — to get groceries every week in her Volkswagen bug. He was more than 6-feet tall but somehow he managed to get in.
She did the same thing when they moved to Atlanta. She also volunteered for the Women’s Symphony League in Austin and its counterpart in Atlanta, but she hadn’t found her passion until she heard about the storybook program in Louisville.
Great idea, now how do you make it happen?
The idea for Women’s Storybook Project percolated while Dullnig was doing other things: selling French and Italian fine linen, selling South African jewelry and doing wardrobe trunk shows.
“I loved texture,” she says.
When she started Storybook, she continued those jobs, but they eventually went away when Storybook began to fill her time. “This is where my heart is,” she says. Dullnig needed someone who knew how the Texas Department of Criminal Justice works. “I knew nothing about prison,” Dullnig says. “I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been.”
She found social worker Anne Mooney, who at the time was doing a parenting program at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville and is now a licensed clinical social worker at that unit. “She was invaluable,” Dullnig says. “She knew the parameters.”
Mooney helped Dullnig brainstorm about the goals of the project and how they could bring their two projects together. One of the things they decided on early is that women had to have 90 days of good behavior. The storybook project became a privilege that women wanted to earn.
She also met Nancy Botkin, who was the warden at the Hilltop Unit when the project started and now serves as the Bell County Jail administrator. Botkin continues to serve on the project’s board. She had heard about the storybook program in other states but “I didn’t have the resources or the volunteer network to do this,” Botkin says. “Judith came at a good time. We had a void at the time. She just took it and ran away with it.”
Initially, Dullnig found volunteers at her own church, St. Mark’s Episcopal, but quickly went interfaith by including the local affiliate of National Council of Jewish Women and Temple Beth Shalom. She didn’t stop there. People would go to a wardrobe trunk show and she would talk to them about the project.
“She’s kind of like the Pied Piper to volunteers,” Botkin says. “She knows how to lay the blueprint.”
The quality and preparedness of volunteers that Dullnig has been able to recruit has been impressive, Botkin says. They are lawyers and teachers and librarians. “They are truly committed.” Some of the volunteers from other groups “have more needs than the inmates,” she says, or they don’t last. “She is such a good role model for all of our inmates and for all of our volunteers.”
One of the biggest challenges of the project was how to bring things into the prison, like books, and, up until recently, tape recorders.
“Even just bringing in the books and the tape recorders initially … to do that was a little mind-boggling for our prison system,” Mooney says. “We’re going to let them record themselves?”
“She convinced them how important it was for the kids to hear their mama’s voice,” Mooney says. “It was for the kids, to reduce the risk for becoming involved in delinquent behaviors.”
Mooney has seen what a difference this program can make. It helps moms remain engaged in their children’s lives, she says. “For a mom that’s not, it’s painful to try … to want to maintain that role. They get blocked at so many turns. They try to write a letter, but family might not write back. They try to have a phone call, but that’s severely limited and costly.”
“This is something tangible they can do to fulfill that family role,” she says.
Growing a program
Dullnig wanted the program to be in every women’s prison in Texas, but first, she had to build a process and a volunteer base that could be replicated.
“She’s extraordinarily patient in seeking advice, meeting with social workers, wardens and volunteers,” Cox says. “She had the patience to build it the right way.”
Early on, the program — then called Storybook Project — ran for a short time under Texas Inmate Families Association, but it became not what Dullnig wanted, so she took it back as an independent program in 2005 and renamed it the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas.
She now works through the prison system’s Windham School District to select the inmates. Many of them are attending a parenting program, but it’s no longer tied to that program. Typically, the women get to record a book a month per kid for four months — and then new women join the program. The women who already have done it can reapply when space opens up.
This year at four of the prisons, mothers are recording books digitally. Storybook is working on moving the other two prisons to digital production. Dullnig has noticed that the move to digital recordings on CDs has meant even more inmates are interested in the program — and the waiting list has grown.
Looking toward the future
Other wardens have called Dullnig to start programs in their prisons. She’s working on building a new volunteer base out of Waco that can serve units in San Saba and Lockhart.
Using digital technology has added to the project’s cost because of necessary laptops and recorders. That has meant a need to rethink the fundraising model. Up until this point, Women’s Storybook Project has been all volunteer-run and relied upon donations and donation drives at BookPeople and Barnes & Noble for supplies. She wants to think about applying for more grants, doing more small fundraising parties and increasing the donor base.
This year, Dullnig hired a part-time administrator that hopefully will grow into a CEO position. Dullnig wants to be able to continue to travel but without worrying about things back at the office.
She spends summers in Maine — where she and Jon built a house nine years ago — and they sail around the islands among the seals. He’s the sailor; she’s the ship’s mate.
Last fall, she and Jon headed to Prague to find where her father’s plane was gunned down and the monument to her father and fellow crew members near the place where they were shot and buried in a shallow grave.
This month, she took a trip to Portugal, adding to her adventures that have taken her as far as Antarctica.
An eventual CEO doesn’t mean that Dullnig won’t be involved in Storybook’s future. She wants to start a new program for Storybook alumni who have been released from prison. Through Storybook @ the Center, moms would sign up to receive books each month to read to their children. She hopes it will help them re-engage with their families.
The women in prison and the letters they get from their children and their children’s caregivers keep Dullnig and the volunteers coming back.
The women tell them, “Thank you for being here. Everyone else tends to forget about us,” volunteer Andrea Payne says.
“This is really special for them,” says volunteer Kelly Hobbs. “They put on makeup for us.”
Caregivers write about children who take the CD and book with them to fall asleep at night and how their grandchild’s eyes light up when they hear Mommy’s voice.
“It’s really the best program out there for children whose mothers are incarcerated,” Cox says.
There were many times when Dullnig could have thrown in the towel as road blocks appeared or rules changed. “Judith had some steadfastness to outlast, to be tenacious,” says Mooney. She’d just say, “We’re going to keep on bringing in books.”
“Now TDCJ would say, ‘Wait, don’t leave!’” Mooney says. “It wasn’t always a mutual, reciprocal investment. Now there’s a real value for what she does and what she brings. … She’s so good at helping people be more than they think they can be.”
About this series
In Giving Ways, Nicole Villalpando introduces you to Central Texans who have started philanthropies that help us connect to our community and beyond.