Partner Spotlight: Douglas County Youth Center

Typically, OPL book clubs are open to the public and welcome new participants. One book club, however, is an exception. It meets weekly, every other month inside the Douglas County Youth Center (DCYC) correctional facility.

During OPL’s COVID-19 closure in 2020, OPL Outreach & Partnerships Manager Maggie Petersen sought ways to reach vulnerable populations with library services. Because many spaces became difficult to access, security requirements at DCYC made virtual visits an easier way to explore book club opportunities with their residents. “I wasn’t sure how interested they’d be, but I quickly found that some residents finished their books within days of receiving them!” said Petersen.

In fall 2022, DCYC Principal Dave Collins reached out to ask if OPL could transition to in-person sessions. About a month later, outreach staff members Elly Roberts and Farhana Husain joined Petersen, with 12 copies of “Tyrell” by Coe Booth in tow. Collins introduced the OPL team to DCYC Librarian Sue Helming and a curious unit of 15-18 year old boys.

“Seeing Maggie model best practices for working with incarcerated youth gave us a ton of inspiration for how to plan and deliver sessions,” said Roberts. “We designed this book club to be conversational and fun, even though we’re reading about topics like homelessness, gun violence, gangs and racism.”

Book selection is an important part of the process. “Incarcerated youth often haven’t had the chance to read stories that they relate to. Letting the boys vote on our next read gives them ownership in the process,” explained Roberts. “Teens can develop a positive relationship to reading through something as simple as discovering protagonists who they can relate to.”
The club devotes three meetings to each book title, and include a combination of reading aloud, vocabulary and plot-related games, content discussions, and a trivia game inspired by the themes and unique components of each book.

Helming noted, “Many of the kids in book club have never read a chapter book before. It is important that we… are non-judgmental and let them state their feelings in a safe environment.”

Helming reports that youth continue to ask for other books by authors they discovered through book club in DCYC’s own library, and that they’ve learned about new genres through the program. “Trying to get the kids excited about reading can be a challenge… [but it] lets them know they are not alone and that the world is a bigger place than they once imagined,” said Helming.

Other featured titles include “When I Was the Greatest” and “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds, “Blood Brothers” by Colleen Nelson, “Just Mercy” (Young Readers Edition) by Bryan Stevenson, and “The Getaway” by Lamar Giles.

“This program has given participants a safe space to discuss tough topics and relate to their peers,” said Husain. “It’s amazing to watch DCYC residents build trust and a sense of community through their book club.”

DCYC Book Clubs are made possible by funding from the Omaha Public Library and Soener foundations.