Story Time Santas: Wyoming Nonprofit Helps Inmates Gift Books to Their Kids  

Project keeps parents behind bars connected to families

Tell Barbour (left) and Richard North, inmates at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, participated in the Everyone Has a Story Project, which distributes books to children whose parents are behind bars. (Courtesy photo from Ricky Smith)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This Christmas will be the first time Richard North, an inmate at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, won’t celebrate the holiday with his children.  

“It sucks,” North, 45, said about being separated from his family. “I really don’t like it. When I get out, I’m going to do everything I can to stay out, because I really miss my kids.”

Yet, North, who entered prison in May for drug-related charges, is trying to stay connected to his four children during the holiday season. He recently participated in a program called the Everyone Has a Story Project, which distributes books to children whose parents are behind bars for Christmas. Through the program, his 7-year-old daughter, Emerii, and 9-year-old son, William, will each receive a new book.

“It makes me happy to know that my kids will get something from me,” North told the Wyoming Truth during a phone call.

The Everyone Has a Story Project was founded by Mary Kay Huck in February 2019. Two months later, a pilot program for the project launched at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk when Neicole Molden, now the warden for the Wyoming State Penitentiary, was associate warden.

Female inmates at the facility can select brand new books to send to their children, as well as video recordings of themselves reading to their families. This month, project volunteers mailed 92 books to the children of 36 inmates at the Wyoming Women’s Center in time for Christmas, according to Huck.

Pictured above are books from the Everyone Has a Story Project on display at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk. Mothers at the center can select books to send to their children through the initiative. (Courtesy photo from Everyone Has a Story Project) 

“It’s very moving to see mothers reach out to their kids and to try and stay connected,” said Huck, who runs a bookkeeping business from her Cheyenne home. “There are tons of stats out there about the incarcerated, and if they stay connected with their family, then when they get out, they’re less likely to fall back into what brought them there in the first place.”

For Tell Barbour, 38, another inmate at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, this will be his third Christmas separated from his family. He was admitted to prison in Feb. 2020 for burglary charges. The father of six also participated in the book program and had books sent to his two youngest daughters this month.  

“When they offered the program when it first got here, I thought, ‘Man, that’s pretty cool,’” Barbour said in a phone interview with the Wyoming Truth. “Sending these books or whatever you can kind of connects you a little better with [family].”

He continued, “The more years you’re away, it’s easier to not be there. As crappy as that is to say, that’s just the fact of the matter. I hate it and everything like that, but it [becomes] normal to me and normal to my kids….[This project] helps me reconnect for sure.”

Barbour has previously participated in the program. His daughters, Maggie and Tatum, have received Dr. Seuss books from the project, including “Green Eggs and Ham” and “I Am Sam-I-Am.” While Tatum, age 9, will hide in the bathroom and read books to her father, Barbour said Maggie, age 5, likes to make up stories as she skims through book pages and pictures.

Strengthening family connections from behind bars

At the Wyoming State Penitentiary, 35 male inmates participated in the project this month. Volunteers sent 67 books, one for each child, on their behalf.

Although project volunteers intended to visit the Wyoming State Penitentiary to audio record some fathers reading, circumstances such as COVID-19 illnesses and hazardous winter weather put a wrench in that plan, Huck said.

“One of our values is that we treat everyone with dignity, and we treat the inmates with dignity when we’re there,” Huck said. “And we believe their children deserve their own package in the mail and their own brand-new book.”

Neither Barbour nor North know which books their children will receive. However, they both filled out forms letting project volunteers know their sons and daughters’ interests, which range from ponies to dinosaurs.

Molden, the state penitentiary warden, said this is the fifth time the facility has participated in the Everyone Has a Story Project, which launched at the prison in December 2020. Inmates there can participate for both Christmas and Father’s Day.

“I think it has had a significant positive impact,” Molden said about the project. “And I think that because the parents feel like it’s a sense of pride, even if it’s a child being able to get a book from them while they are in prison. They feel like they’re still sort of parenting a little bit, even if it’s just a gift.… It makes them show their kids that they are making an effort and doing something positive from the inside [of prison walls].”

Since the program’s inception at the state penitentiary, about 200 inmates have participated and around 400 books have been distributed. Eventually, Molden would like to expand the project to include the inmates’ stepchildren, nieces and nephews.  

With their children in spirit 

The holidays are typically a depressing time for inmates who are separated from their families, Molden noted.

To help cheer them up, the Wyoming State Penitentiary also organized other holiday festivities, including a gingerbread house contest, a visit from Santa Claus, a Christmas party and a steak-and-potato dinner on Christmas day.

“We want them to feel like they’re still part of a community, and they still have that support of celebrating certain holidays,” Molden said. “Christmas is just one that’s a big one where people really want to be with their families. So, we try to make it where it’s enjoyable, even if it’s for five minutes to take their minds off their families.”

Although North and Barbour cannot see their children on Christmas, both men want them to know how much they love and miss them.  

“I just hope that I never come back [to prison] and just be the father that my kids and the husband that my wife deserves – just to be a good person all around,” North said.

To Barbour, the most valuable thing in the world is time, and much of that has been lost for him and his family.

“I gotta make up a lot of time,” Barbour said. “It’s not just with the holidays. I want to be around my kids for all of the stuff. I miss so much time with them that I think that when I get out, what I need to dedicate is time to my children.”

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