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Draper • Amid the holiday cards and the boxes of gifts delivered to households across Utah this season were some extra special packages bearing the return address of the Utah State Prison.
The gifts inside: CD recordings of holiday books and other beloved children's classics read aloud by the incarcerated women who are away from their kids for far more than just the 12 days of Christmas.
"Hi Aston, this book is for you. … Merry Christmas!" Maria King reads into the digital recorder's microphone before launching into a reading of the Audrey Wood book, "The Napping House" about a sleepy grandmother who's joined in bed by a sleepy grandson, family pets and a mouse and a menagerie of other dozing guests.
"There is a house, a napping house, where everyone is sleeping," King begins, grinning as the words roll off her tongue.
King is among the 45 women in the Bedtime Stories Program, which has run for about a dozen years. The women meet monthly with volunteers in the visitor's room at the Timpanogos Women's Correctional Facility to read and record the stories for their children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews. The recordings are then reviewed, copied to CDs and mailed along with the books by the United Way of Utah County, which operates Bedtime Stories under the umbrella of the prison's volunteer programs. Only those whose crimes are not child-related are allowed to participate, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Brooke Adams said.
The recordings can't make up for missing story time in person, but it helps, the inmates said. At least half of the nearly 700 women currently incarcerated in Utah have one or more children, Corrections data show.
"It's something I can do to keep the connection," said King, whose boys, Aston, 6, and Blaze, 8, were adopted by her parents in Cedar City after she was sent to prison for a term of up to five years following a drug possession conviction.
King's children, who have not seen her for two years, love getting the books and wait anxiously for the mail and new reading each month, her mother, Kim Abney said. And when a new CD arrives, the boys, especially Blaze, run for the CD player.
"They love it. They get to hear her voice and they listen to them every night," Abney said. "It makes me happy that they get (the books), but it makes me sad because of the situation we're all in."
Bedtimes Stories was first started by a Brigham Young University student as a service project for her Mormon church Young Women's group and was launched with a seed grant of $100,000 from the United Way and the Ashton Family Foundation. The books for the program come through donations.
New volunteer Whitney Woodmansee, of Taylorsville, said she was initially nervous about coming to the prison, but loves the experience.
"I was a nanny, so I know how important reading is," said the 26-year-old who works full time and attends cosmetology school. "Since I have been here, I see how it connects these women to their kids. It feels so good that I can be a part of that."
It's also been a lesson in perspective, she said.
"There's no difference between her and me," Woodmansee said as she helped inmate Alecia Kap read to her 8-year-old son. "What choices would I have made if I had been in the same situation? It's humbling."
Inmate Debra Samples said she's grateful for the opportunity the Bedtime Stories Program provides in part because it gives her something positive to look forward to each month. Two weeks before Christmas, the 55-year-old Price woman picked out a holiday-themed volume to record for her 7-year-old grandson.
"Hi Damyen! This is grandma. Grandma loves you so very, very much," Samples, who is in prison for up to five years after a 2012 theft conviction, says into the recording before launching into a sing-song reading of the book "Santa's Magical Cookies."
Samples smiles through the reading, but her eyes also fill with tears,
"Merry Christmas, Damyen," Samples says as the recording neared its end. "Be nice, OK? Sleep with the angels."