CHICAGO. As 2-year-old KD walked from the high-security reception area at the Cook County Jail to meet her aunt and father, she smiled.
Like every other time his aunt takes him to prison, this time colorful furniture, dozens of books, toys and a lively wallpaper decorate the place where an officer usually – and anxiously – waits to see his father. in custody awaiting trial.
His smile was in memory of Chicago Public Library librarian Becca Ruddle, who died of COVID-19 in March at the age of 30. His dream was to provide a literacy space for children in overcrowded prisons. Rodles' friend and former boss Elizabeth McChesney said people of color spend time visiting their loved ones.
On December 13, an early literacy playground opened in the maximum-security section of the prison, along with McChesney's pledge to honor Ruidle's legacy. McChesney inspired other leaders who championed the idea of changing the story of traumatized children and enabling them to learn.
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“When you walk into an emergency room, it's no longer a sign of depression. It represents a connection and it affects not only children, but inmates as well,” said Dr. Dr. Neka Jones Tapia, clinical psychologist and executive director. Jones Tapia is working with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to raise awareness of the injuries and to visit families in correctional facilities starting in 2019.
So when McChesney Dart and Jones shared Ruddle's vision with Tapia, “every barrier fell and it was a miracle; I think Becker had the courage, so a lot of people collaborated with us" McChesney said.
The LaundryCares Foundation, of which McChesney is director of communications, helped fund part of the project with donations from friends and the Radley family. Jones Tapia and Mud found the Cook County Jail waiting room to house the most children for the year.
"We have such a high concentration of kids going to prison that [Radley's] legacy will continue," Dart said.
Ruddle loved children and was passionate about changing outcomes for particularly disadvantaged children. McChesney met Ruidl in 2016 while working at the Chicago Public Library. Ruidle was the manager of the Buckstown-Wicker Park branch. He ran a mobile service where he turned venues into laundromats and posted stories with his crew all over Chicago.
"He was a rising star," McChesney said. Shortly before her death, Rudl earned a second master's degree in early childhood education from the Erickson Institute. McChesney and Ruddle link their efforts to change expectations for children of color and their desire to eliminate disparities and influence space to love and nurturing.
“I know it helps break the cycle of trauma in communities experiencing extreme poverty and violence,” McChesney said.
Before his death, Ruidl repeatedly shared his dream of caring for inmate children with McChesney. On the day of his funeral, Ruddle's mother asked McChesney to keep the dream alive.
McChesney did just that and now hopes that, like KD, every child he visits will benefit from that dream.
"The universe is truly about love: love for Becca and her brave mother, love for children and parents who come to visit the Cook County Maximum Security Unit," McChesney said.
In addition to Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff's Office has extended its outreach to children and families visiting the jail.
KD's aunt, Yazrenik Andri, is excited about the changes in the lobby and hopes her nephew will form another bond with the prison and positively impact his life when he grows up and meets his father there.
“He will remember that he came here, because he will see his father,” Andri said. "But now a space for kids can have a positive effect on them instead of sitting in a dry, oppressive place."
The boy's father is awaiting trial, so the family don't know how long he will be there. But Andri says he and KD have been seeing each other every week since he was put in jail.
Jones Tapia said having an incarcerated parent can negatively impact young children's lives if they don't have adequate resources or a lot of support. According to him, children learn worse, experience emotional stress, use drugs more often and run the risk of going to prison.
"But it's important to change this narrative to understand that we can alleviate these negative experiences by enabling children to maintain these positive connections with loved ones who are incarcerated," Jones Tapia said.
He says the educational aspect will help change history. And while it was Ruidle's dream, "the project succeeded through the dedication of many people in the community."
Lakeshore Learning, a nursery furniture company, donated items; Scholastic publishes 50 new books every month. Many children's authors devote their books to this area. And Google Kids and Families gave away books so kids could pick a book to visit with an incarcerated family member. The mural that decorates the entrance was created by artist Steve Musgrave.
“We are aware of the impact of book ownership on children and the impact of early literacy programs in areas where families live for extended periods of time,” McChesney said. "The role of play as a shield against injury, what happens when caregivers care, and how it helps reduce anxiety and stress for the entire family during this vulnerable time."
Jones Tapia added that Chicago Beyond will work to establish more humane structures for family visits at other organizations.