In Bartow County, Free Books Help Heal Families

In 2013, I attended the Georgia Campaign for Grade-Level Reading: Decision-Making and Action Launch meeting at the Carter Center. I came away having “made a decision.” And I had a plan to “launch our own action” for the Bartow County Juvenile Court. Having been involved in the juvenile court system for 25 years (at that time) and a judge since 2000, it was apparent that failure to get an education was a huge impediment to a child’s chance for a successful transition to adulthood. My associate judge and I want children to at least graduate from high school but we see too many parents who themselves have not graduated and who do not either value education or reading itself.

Our plan was to buy new books and give one per child to every parent whose child came into foster care. We would tell the parent two things about this: one, we wanted them to read the book to their children at visits because we were trying to emphasize how important it is to read to their children and/or encourage their older children to read.

Second, we were expecting their children to be returned to them and that this book would go in their library of books at home. Our intention was to be encouraging to families at a moment of possibly their greatest fear. The court had $200 left over from money given by two individuals for a different program that had lapsed.

Permission was obtained to use the money for our “New Book Program,” and 15 books were purchased. We have an attorney who was particularly generous with our new books, and every time I looked toward our reception area where we kept our books, he was standing there giving books away. And he would give them to delinquent and unruly children and would give second books away to children who had already received their books. I panicked. Soon we would have no books left!

Oh, me of little faith! Those first books were our seed books. They multiplied like rabbits. Our generous attorney, Anthony Thomasson, bought more books for us and soon others followed. The Cartersville Service League found out about our new book project and donated more new books. We were asked about bringing used books, and we discouraged that at first because this was a “new” book program. But when the Cartersville/Bartow County Library offered us gently used books that they were culling from their collection, we changed our minds.

Books flowed into the court! Other citizens have found out about our book program, and even more books have flowed in. The pictures above show our space as it looks now. And in fact, if you stand outside the window of our reception area, our deputy clerk who sits there, Anne, looks for all the world like a librarian (I know, media specialist, but she actually looks like a classic librarian). The joy we experience watching kids excitedly select their very own books is truly priceless. We are making our small contribution now to “Get Georgia Reading” but the seed was the 2013 Campaign event.

Velma Cowen Tilley has been the judge of the juvenile court in Bartow County since January 1, 2000. With 27 total years serving the juvenile court, she was one of three authors of the Proposed Model Juvenile Code, which served as a starting place for the comprehensive Georgia Code Rewrite that was ultimately passed by the legislature.