Education

Squad Car Bookmobiles

November 23, 2004 1 min read

MeLisa Bell-Churchwell does not buy her children books, yet her youngest sons boast a library with more than 150 volumes.

“They had some books already,” Ms. Bell-Churchwell said. “But when they come home with bags [of books], you kind of lose track.”

The books were given to her sons Latevin and Burnell Lymon, ages 12 and 9, by Racine, Wis., police officers through the Cops-N-Kids program.

Julia M. Burney-Witherspoon, a retired Racine police officer of 17 years, founded the program after a drug raid proved to her that it was easier to find illegal drugs than books in some homes.

Ms. Burney-Witherspoon said she experienced a flashback to her Mississippi childhood during a 1997 raid. She found books where her parents had kept them—on top of the refrigerator.

Keeping books in mattresses or out of the hands of children was a practice that survived slavery, she said.

“We weren’t allowed to touch the books,” said Ms. Burney-Witherspoon, 53, who has 11 siblings. “My parents could not afford to buy books for me. And they were very concerned about us damaging the library books.”

Her flashback jolted her into action. She spread the word that there were few books in Racine homes and collected used ones. After responding to a burglar alarm at a warehouse, she received a donation of 10,000 books from the building’s owner.

From then on, books rode in the squad car when Ms. Burney-Witherspoon patrolled her neighborhood beat. “They [children] chase police cars down the street,” she said. “We’re rolling libraries.”

The program now has a reading center with a reading room and library where about 40 children come after school for tutoring programs.

Those programs, Ms. Bell-Churchwell said, have given Burnell the confidence to read aloud. “He came to me [and said] … ‘I read aloud at school today and I wasn’t even scared,’ ” she said.

Since 1997, with support from Oprah Winfrey’s charitable “Angel Network” and Amazon.com, the program has expanded to 60 sites nationally.

At the end of a day of hauling books, tutoring students, and reading aloud, Ms. Burney-Witherspoon gets tired, she admitted. “It’s the happiest tired you ever want to feel,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week

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