Local Students Volunteer Their Time to Provide Books to Inmates

09/30/2021
Story and photos by Daniella Zelikman

There are a lot of things I missed about being in Ithaca when Ithaca College went remote for a year. Seeing my friends, exploring the city, going to restaurants, but what I found myself missing most of all was running one of the clubs I’m part of, IC Books Thru Bars. A student-run nonprofit organization focused on providing books to people incarcerated all over the United States, it has been an integral part of my college experience since freshman year. With Ithaca College back in the full swing of things, Books Thru Bars is finally able to host the in-person events we’re known for: mailings.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, my fellow executive board members and I meet in the Taughannock Falls conference room to set up. We unload boxes of books and packaging supplies from our storage cabinet and lay them out neatly on the long tables. The books are organized by genre, and we have everything from general fiction to sci-fi and fantasy to textbooks and nonfiction. We never know what kinds of requests we’ll receive in the letters incarcerated people send us, so we try to be as prepared as possible. Since our library relies on donations, we don’t always have what people are looking for, but the hunt for the right book or the perfect substitute is part of the fun.

As the mailing coordinator, I organize the volunteers that come streaming in at 10 a.m. and explain what they’re going to be doing. There are at least 20 people, a large turnout for our small club, and I’m thrilled to see so many people interested in helping out and doing good. After over a year of not being able to operate, we have a massive backlog of requests and the more volunteers we have, the better.

Packages containing books are ready to be shipped to inmates who have requested them.

 

Quickly, everyone falls into a rhythm. Read a letter, find some books, and get to packaging. The room is filled with the rustle of opening letters and the tear of scissors cutting through paper bags. Meanwhile, I read through old letters to double check addresses and whether we can fulfill their requests, all the while fielding questions and issues that arise with the volunteers. The letters contain everything from succinct requests for books to people’s life stories. No matter what kind of letter I read, it creates a connection between me and the incarcerated person and I hope we have something in our collection that will fulfill their needs.

While the mailing is hectic, it’s also exhilarating. By the time 1 p.m. rolls around, we have over 80 packages ready to be shipped out, the largest number we’ve had in a long time. After so long without a mailing, it’s a massive accomplishment and I can’t wait to go to the post office and send them on their way.


Daniella Zelikman is a senior at Ithaca College where she studies marketing and writing. When not in class, she can usually be found reading, writing, or trying to crochet. She loves supporting her local bookstores and exploring art museums.           

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