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Article updated: 3/7/2011 1:48 PM

Lisle firefighters REACH out to kids with books

By Joan Broz

Put a book in the hands of a child and something wonderful happens.

Within the magical world of tales, legends and stories, children can find answers and comfort.

The Lisle-Woodridge Fire District has a history of encouraging reading, so it comes as no surprise it's at the forefront of a new book program in Illinois called "With Wings and a Halo -- REACH a Child."

REACH is an acronym for Reading Enjoyment Affects Childhood Happiness. Department officials believe the program will help cheer up children in emergency situations by allowing them to choose a book from a "BACK packet" collection, with BACK standing for Be A Cheerful Kid.

"This (new program) fits into what the department does in the community," said fire district Bureau Chief Jim French. "Reading can take children places they have never been before."

The REACH a Child program's mission is to put a smile on the face of a child in a time of crisis. It allows that child or teen to select and keep a donated book.

Firefighter/paramedic Neil Berkowitz suggested the Lisle-Woodridge district launch the nonprofit initiative, joining a program started three years ago in Wisconsin by program coordinators Paul and Chris Gilbertson working with the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association.

The program provides backpacks filled with 10 to 12 children's books for any first responder to give to kids affected by an accident, fire, domestic disturbance or other crisis.

"Years ago, we had a stuffed animal program and this is an offshoot of that, but something a little more educational and appropriate," French said.

In the Lisle-Woodridge district, all five ambulances have the red backpacks because those units respond to all calls for apparatuses. If young people are involved, each may select one book from the pack.

Berkowitz keeps tabs on the books and handles restocking to ensure the backpacks are filled with a variety of books that are age appropriate. The books are a tool to diffuse a situation and to reach out to help a child.

"Those firefighters that have utilized the program are happy we have it in place and feel that the program will really make a big difference in the patient care they can give a kid," Berkowitz said.

"What a fabulous idea and program," said Judy Bauman, library resource director at Tate Woods Elementary School in Lisle. "Books evoke in children that feeling of safety and comfort as they relive the times they were read to on the lap of a loved one."

In June 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a proclamation in Illinois recognizing and commending "With Wings and a Halo -- REACH a Child" for its "efforts to protect the hearts and minds of children during crises and prevent lifelong scars."

The program launched in Illinois through its state troopers. In Wisconsin, the books are in 4,000 to 5,000 squad cars and ambulances.

The program expanded to include Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, California and Texas.

The national office in Madison, Wis., handles the program and reaches out for help to corporations and service clubs that want to become involved in their communities.

"Your donations stay local so the children of your community benefit," Paul Gilbertson said. "Our program is ongoing and we will always replenish supply when the need arises. The more kids in need that we can help, the better."

Gilbertson hopes the program will be in every community in the country within five years. Contact him through the website at REACHaChild.org.

Last year, REACH gave away more than 250,000 books to kids in crises. In December, the program expanded to offer a book to children visiting incarcerated parents in jail.

"It is all a matter of establishing a positive relationship at an early age that will carry on as the child ages," Gilbertson said. "This is true crime prevention."

Research consistently affirms the importance of reading to young children. Books allow children to relax, cope and help what's ailing them. They are a resource for every adult who cares about children.

"I am a firm believer that books have great power to help children cope during difficult times in their lives," said Lindsey Dorfman, Lisle library's director of youth services.

"I remember feeling comforted to know that characters in books were experiencing similar feelings to mine when my mother used books to help me cope with my parents' divorce. I can't remember the titles of the books, but I remember the illustrations and the feelings clearly."

Dorfman said the library has many books written to help children cope with a variety of difficult situations. There are books to help kids with grief, loss and other sensitive subjects, she said.

The librarian offers some specific books such as "Good Night Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown, "The Heart and the Bottle" by Oliver Jeffers and anything by Dr. Seuss.

Bauman recognizes students at her school like humorous titles such as the Scaredy Squirrel series by Melanie Watt, Splat the Cat series by Rob Scotton and Biscuit books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli.

"Students immediately engage in these books because of the illustrations, format and familiarity of the characters and conflict," Baumann said.

"All children are different, so it is hard to determine which books a particular child will connect with," Dorfman said. "It sounds like the fire department will have a variety of titles for each child to choose from, which I think is perfect."

It is easy to imagine the affable Pooh, Wilbur, Corduroy, Amelia Bedelia, Paddington Bear and the Cat in the Hat nodding in agreement.

"With Wings and a Halo -- REACH a Child" is made possible by financial donations, in-kind donations and volunteers. For details and fire prevention information, visit Lisle-Woodridge Fire Prevention Bureau website at lwfd.org.

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. E-mail her at jgbroz@yahoo.com.

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