Our Co-Founder: Pat Oplinger
.Our Former Board President:
After a long career as a school teacher, Pat Oplinger retired to Cherokee Village, Arkansas, and founded The Storybook Project of Arkansas in 1997. She served as a director until 2013 and remained active with the organization until two years ago when health issues curtailed her involvement. Pat remains passionate about The Storybook Project and continues to be an inspiration and valuable resource for our program.
The Storybook Project of Arkansas was inspired by Companions, Inc., a non-profit prison ministry organization established in 1986 in Illinois by the three nieces of Mary E. Best, who began tutoring former inmates herself. From that, she began taking books to the prison and recording the inmates. Companions' Aunt Mary's Storybook Project continues to serve families with incarcerated loved ones.
After reading about Companions, Pat Oplinger approached the chaplains at the Newport McPherson facility for women and obtained approval to introduce the project there over 20 years ago. Our program in Grimes, the men's unit in Newport, evolved from there. Literacy was a large part of the intent at the beginning, but touching the lives of thousands of children and inmates by keeping families connected during incarceration was and remains our primary focus.
Oplinger, who lives in Cherokee Village, started the program after retiring from a 39-year career in education. A firm believer that retirees should use their skills and experience to help others, she was searching for a way to do just that.
"So I said, 'What are you going to do with yourself, Pat?'" she said.
She read a story in the local newspaper in Cherokee Village about a couple hosting a discussion on their ministry with death row inmates and decided to attend. While there, a young woman approached and asked why she was there. Oplinger told her she was looking for a way to use her skills to help people.
"Long story short, she did hard time and she said, 'I think I can give you some ideas of what prisoners need,'" Oplinger said.
After talking with the woman and thinking about how she could help, Oplinger came up with an idea that combined her wish to help others and her love of teaching. Books seemed to be a natural fit, and that's how the Storybook Project came about. The project's motto is "keeping families connected through reading."
Carolyn Morgan led The Storybook Project of Arkansas for many years until her recent relocation to Indiana to be near family. We already miss her so much and are extremely grateful for her faithful years of service and leadership. We hope you will enjoy reading about Carolyn’s journey with The Storybook Project and how she made a difference in so many lives. Thank you, Carolyn Morgan!
When did you get involved with Storybook?
We moved to Cherokee Village in 2000, and it was shortly after that that I met someone who was mailing books to the children of the inmates at Newport. They asked if I'd like to help. It intrigued me, and that's where it started. Eventually, I was asked if I'd like to sign up to volunteer to go to the prison and my involvement just grew from there.
What prompted you to get involved?
I'm the kind of person that gets involved with projects that I think are helpful to humanity. I looked at the inmates and knew that they were not bad people, just people who had made bad decisions at some point in their lives.
We've all made bad decisions at some point, so anything I could do to help people in that situation was a benefit to me. That's what I was drawn to.
What has inspired you?
When I sit across the table from these folks and hear them say how much they appreciate us and how much it means to them, that is what has inspired me. One man wrote to me afterwards and said it was the first time anybody actually seemed to take an interest in him since he'd been in prison. That stuck with me. Our presence means something to these people, and that has kept me going back and staying involved.
They are people just like we are, and we need to recognize them as people who need encouragement and a feeling that they still count for something -- that their lives are not totally over, especially if they can keep in touch with their children.
What has your role been through the years?
I started out helping mail the books. Then when we set up the 501 (c) 3 and needed a board, I had been involved the longest and became the board president. Before that I was the volunteer coordinator who scheduled the visits with the chaplains and their prison calendars. I also enlisted volunteers to go to the prisons, to help with burning the CDs and packaging and mailing the books.
What advice might you have for someone wanting to get involved or even starting their own Storybook Project?
Don't be intimidated by going to the prisons. It's quite safe. There are so many rules and guidelines in place, including a strict policy of selecting the inmates who are eligible to read. But if that is not your "calling," there are many other ways you can help -- with getting the books, packaging the books, mailing the books.
Hopefully when the Covid crisis is over, we can resume this project. It's important that the inmates stay in touch with their children, and it's important to the children -- that they know their parent loves them and cares for them enough to record a story, and write to them and mail a book.
If anyone is interested in getting involved with The Storybook Project, get in touch with us. And if you'd like to start one in your area, contact those who have started one. Use their guidelines; everyone is willing to share the things they've gone through.
I have met and worked with wonderful people, both volunteers and inmates. It's a chance to help those that most of society is scared of or looks down on. I was inspired by our common humanity and a chance to share that sentiment with the inmates.