When Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kitty-Ann van Doorninck nudged her friend, Margaret Ross, to return to volunteer work in the court system, the answer she got was unexpected.
“Margaret wanted to work with the kids in Remann Hall,” the judge said. “She wanted to start a book club.”
Ross and her husband, Craig, had worked in the court’s diversion program and with nonprofit organizations from Tacoma to Washington D.C. Both had mentored kids in a D.C. program — Margaret in literature, Craig in math.
But a book club for teens serving time in Pierce County’s juvenile detention facility?
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“I was a little apprehensive when I first heard about it,” Court Administrator T.J. Boles said. “We have kids here for murder, hard crimes. Kids in Remann Hall are challenging, aggressive, some of them dealing with mental illness issues.”
“We’d had books here before,” Boles said. “No one read them.”
“The Rosses cut right through all of that.”
I’ve heard kids talk about how they’re going to write a book when they’re out.
The first time the book club met, in July 2013, fewer than five kids showed up from among Remann Hall’s 30 detainees.
All of them got a book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie.
Every second week, the Rosses return. At each of their Monday book club meetings, the Tacoma couple brings a new book — and every kid in attendance is given a copy.
“A lot of times, the only possessions these kids have, other than toiletries, are the books,” Margaret said.
On Mondays, the Rosses distribute books. On Thursdays, the club meets to discuss what the kids have read.
Slowly, the membership numbers climbed.
“Today, most kids go,” said Carrie Appling, volunteer coordinator for Juvenile Court. “The Rosses have a grandparent vibe, and the kids love them. They line up to hug Margaret.”
This club and these kids are the joy of my life. It’s like a B-12 shot for the soul.
Margaret, 68, and Craig, 69, attended the same high school in Southern California without knowing each other. When they did meet — at their 25th high school reunion — it led to marriage.
He has a quiet, strong presence. She is more animated, smiles a bit more, but takes advocacy for her kids seriously.
“Margaret’s advocacy is relentless,” Boles said. “She doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She has a vision and makes it happen. Roadblocks? There were a number of them with the book club. If kids need it, she makes it happen.”
First, the books themselves. Margaret, who reads about 200 books a year and belongs to two book clubs of her own (including one with Judge van Doorninck), reads every book before it goes to Remann Hall.
“I read 58 young adult titles last year to pick 27 for the club,” she said.
Early on, the Rosses bought all the books. They received a 20-percent discount at King’s Books in Tacoma, but the bill still added up.
Craig created a 501c3 non-profit, and they began accepting donations.
The results with Remann Hall kids came faster than the money.
“We had one girl, maybe 14. We gave her a book and when she came back she said, ‘I’d never read a book before.’ She’d been assigned books to read in school but never read them,” Margaret said.
Craig recalls a tall, silent boy.
“His name was Jarvis, and we read a poem, ‘Mother to Son,’ by Langston Hughes,” Craig said. “Jarvis was sobbing. He connected to that poem. He hadn’t been getting along with his mom.
“People make assumptions about kids in detention. A lot of them are wrong.”
Kids at Remann Hall come and go. Some “time out” of the youth system when they turn 18 and are transferred to the county jail.
The Rosses and their book club give them something to do in custody, other than time.
The insights they’d give us after reading a book surprised us. They took it very seriously. People make assumptions about kids in detention. A lot of them are wrong.
Every December, the Rosses ask each of the club members to list two books they’d like to have, then try to buy one as a Christmas gift.
“Last year, one boy asked for a book on philosophy. When I asked what, specifically, he was looking for, he said, ‘One that tells how is life supposed to be’, ” Margaret said.
The Rosses have started a small library at Remann Hall, a couple of filled book carts that detainees can pick through. In 2 ½ years, the nonprofit has donated 1,000 new books to the kids, and hundreds more used books.
“When we started the club, our mission statement was, ‘We define success if we can say we touched one life, one heart’, ” Margaret said.
Neither she nor her husband knew two of those hearts would be their own.
How to donate
For more information about the Remann Hall Book Club, including how to donate to the club’s library, go online to www.kingsbookstore.com/remannhall