Reaching out for literacy: Cops 'N Kids reading center could be ready by the end of summer

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Racine) -- Julia Burney's dream is almost built.The Cops 'N Kids reading center at 800 Villa St. is close to opening its doors to central-city children. With a little luck and a few more prayers, it could open by the end of August."You can't rush donations," says the 16-year veteran of the Racine Police Department, letting out a contagious laugh. "We're working on prayers, but it's working." Standing on the second floor of the three-story building, once vacant for 28 years, Burney points to a bare room with a storm-damaged window that will be transformed into a reading room with sofas and beds where children can curl up with a book.Down the hall, an equally empty room will become a computer center, and another room with boarded-up windows will be transformed into an office and conference room.Burney, a mother of four and grandmother of four, began working on her dream in 1997. Burney noticed an absence of books while responding to calls in central-city homes. When she discovered that a company was storing children's books with minor printing flaws, she asked whether she could have them to give to central-city children. Burney began giving away books in 1998.Since then, Burney and dozens of other officers have given away tens of thousands of books. She now has a distribution center, where volunteers from the Racine Public Library sort books, and in three weeks she'll hit the streets to deliver books during her off hours in a donated van."We'll be out on a call, and kids will come up to me, 'Lady police, lady police, do you have any books?' " Officer Jody Rogers says as she demonstrated how the children tug at her pants. "I have to tell them, 'Wait a minute, honey, and I'll get you some.' "The book program has made Racine officers less intimidating to youths, many of whom previously held negative impressions of police, Burney says."A lot of problems we go to are grown-up problems," she says, explaining that many times children are upset when officers respond to a domestic fight. "They shouldn't be hating us at such an early age."Even though children are still shaken up by their family's problems, knowing police officers through the book program makes them less frightened during the ordeal, Burney says."We're still police officers, and we still are doing our jobs," she says. "They know we're police, but they see us differently."Police officers distribute the books while on routine patrol. On a recent afternoon, Burney and Rogers stop, unannounced, at the 900 block of Villa St. Pouring out of doors and streaming down porches, a group of about 25 children clamor around them."Who wants . . ." Burney says, as she begins to recite the title of a Frances series book, but a chorus of "Me, me!" drowns her voice. Burney hands out a book and works through a handful of other picture books. Before Rogers could even finish distributing at least a dozen math workbooks, children were already reaching for the spelling and letters workbooks.In five minutes, the officers give away at least 200 books, and more than one child asks when they are coming back.Three girls -- China Sherrod, 12; Shayla Bohanon, 11; and Latoya Fields, 12 -- each walk away with an armful of books."They're really cool books," China says, showing off her prize: a Babysitters Club book.Another girl, Passion Coleman, 9, sits on her porch steps, working through a "Letters and Sounds" workbook.Burney says books bring children hope. As one of 12 children, she says she knows what it's like to grow up poor.Burney credits her Aunt Ruby Gladney for inspiring her to read and to pursue her dreams." My aunt reached out to me," Burney says. Her mission is to pass on that inspiration."She does a helluva job," says Neil Thorpe, owner of Belle City Heating, who is installing air conditioning and heating in the reading center. "She's the best officer in the state."Burney pushes the credit away." It's not just me," Burney says. "It's all of the officers. It's the whole community."She points out that the building was donated, money has been donated, furniture and books and even a computer were donated. Much of the labor in fixing the building has also been donated.Burney says donations and volunteers are the backbone of the program, and that she's still looking for additional funds, more books and children's tables and chairs.Burney and Cops 'N Kids will be featured on NBC's "Today" show Monday. Burney says she would like to see other police officers start similar programs in their communities.Nearly an hour after she and Rogers dropped by the Villa Street neighborhood, dozens of children are still sitting on porches, curled up with their new books.------------For information on making a donation, call (262) 633-7921.

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