MEQUON - Reach-A-Child is working to reach children across Wisconsin, including recently partnering with the Mequon Police Department.
The statewide organization donated 130 books to the Mequon Police Department in December, according to Curt Fuszard, executive director of Reach-A-Child.
The goal of the organization is to donate children’s books to local police and fire departments, and other first responders, which can then be given to children in stressful situations.
“Mequon was unusual but fun,” Fuszard said.
The Mequon donation was the culmination of a service project by a group of seniors at Homestead High School, a six-week book drive according to Fuszard.
Fuszard said Reach-A-Child has a strict policy of new or gently used books with content appropriate for all ages. The target range is 2-13 years old with most children 14 or older having a smartphone to distract them, Fuszard said.
He said any books received that don’t meet their criteria are donated to different organizations.
Fuszard said the Mequon Police Department will be visited again within six months to refill “reach bags” with more books and drawstring backpacks.
Fuszard said it’s the goal to eventually get books and bags into every first responder vehicle in the state. For 2017, Reach-A-Child hopes to have 20,000 books delivered to first responders – about double of what was delivered in 2016. At the moment, Reach-A-Child works with 25 police departments, seven sheriff’s departments, the entire state patrol, and about 20 fire or EMS departments. That’s less than a third of all departments in the state, Fuszard said.
The organization focuses a lot on larger groups of first responders. He said Reach-A-Child works with the state patrol as well as the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.
Fuszard said Reach-A-Child is concerned about the individual departments, as well, because bad things happen to children in those communities “and if first responders don’t have a tool to comfort a child, it’s not a good thing.”
The main priority areas are Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.
Making a difference
Departments linked with Reach-A-Child equip their emergency vehicles with 10 children’s books plus 10 children’s drawstring backpacks. Kids are given the book and a bag to keep it in. The bag also is useful to carry anything else the child needs to keep with them.
“First responders feel good about it because they’re delivering a solution,” Fuszard said.
Fuszard reflected on a few examples from across the state of the books being used.
One example was a Middleton Police officer on a motorcycle who noticed a woman driving erratically. She was under the influence and had three kids in the back seat. The officer called her husband to get the kids but it took him about 40 minutes to get there. In the meantime, the officer read through three books with each child getting one. Just as they finished the last book, their father arrived.
Another testimonial that stood out to Fuszard was a crash involving a mother, father, grandmother and child. He said the grandmother died on the scene and the responders had to use the jaws of life to get her out of the vehicle.
“Police had the granddaughter off to the side, distracted with the book,” Fuszard said. “She didn’t have to see the jaws or grandma being put into the ambulance.”
Fuszard himself used a book recently. While traveling in Madison, he saw a disabled vehicle. He grabbed a reach bag, introduced himself to the parents and asked if he could give their son and daughter books.
“Mom and dad were so happy there was something that could occupy their kids' time,” he said.
Reach-A-Child is based in Madison and started 10 years ago when the founders gathered children’s books and randomly gave them to first responders in Wisconsin — there was no program policy or structure. Now there is a board of directors and a set of policies.
“It’s very structured,” Fuszard said. “It’s almost like a brand new organization.”
Fuszard said the founders saw written messages from kids who were impacted by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. He said they thought it was terrible they have to experience that and have lingering memories. The goal that followed was to come up with a way to “transform the kids to a better mental state.”
Many suggested a stuffed animal but Fuszard said first responders often say if they give a stuffed animal to a child they hold the animal over their heart but they’re still looking at the situation.
Fuszard said the program has evolved with books now being given out in positive, non-crisis situations as well.
"We think that’s awesome," Fuszard said.
He guessed a year from now, two out of three books given will be during positive situations.
Those interested in donating books can go through the Reach-A-Child website, reachachild.org. Fuszard said if it’s a larger donation he would love to meet, find out what the aspirations are for the donation, if there’s a specific area those donating wish the books to go, etc.
“We’re trying to make it as personal as possible,” he said.