When 2-year-old K.D. walked with his aunt inside the waiting area of the Maximum Security Division at Cook County Jail to visit his father, he smiled.
Unlike all the other times his aunt had brought him to the jail, this time, colorful furniture, dozens of books, toys and a vivid mural adorned the space where he typically — and anxiously — waits until an officer escorts him to see his father, who is incarcerated and awaiting trial.
His smile was thanks to the memory of Becca Ruidl, a librarian with the Chicago Public Library who died of COVID-19 in March at age 30. Her dream was to provide a literacy space for children of the incarcerated at the jail, where many children of color tend to spend time while visiting their loved ones, said Elizabeth McChesney, Ruidl’s friend and former boss.
On Dec. 13, an early literacy play space was inaugurated at the jail’sMaximum Security Division thanks to McChesney’s commitment to honor Ruidl’s legacy. McChesney galvanized other leaders who supported the vision to change the narrative of children experiencing trauma and providing them with learning opportunities.
“When you walk into the lobby of visitation, it no longer signals hopelessness; it signals connection, and the impact of that is not just for the children, but also for the individuals who are incarcerated,” said Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist and managing director of justice initiatives at Chicago Beyond. Jones Tapia had been working with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to create more trauma-informed and family-friendly visitations at the correctional facility since 2019.
So when McChesney shared Ruidl’s vision with Dart and Jones Tapia, “every barrier fell away and it was miraculous; I think it was Becca’s spirit, so many people partnered with us,” McChesney said.
The LaundryCares Foundation, for which McChesney serves as community partnership director, helped fund part of the project, along with donations from Ruidl’s friends and family. Jones Tapia and Dart were able to identify the waiting area in Cook County Jail that sees the most children throughout the year.
“In the jail, we have such a high concentration of children coming in that will just carry on (Ruidl’s) legacy,” Dart said.
Ruidl loved children and was especially passionate about changing the expected outcomes for kids in vulnerable situations. McChesney met Ruidl in 2016 while the two worked for the Chicago Public Library. Ruidl was manager of the Bucktown-Wicker Park branch. She ran a mobile outreach service where she would transform spaces into laundromats and held story times with her team all over Chicago.
“She was a rising star,” McChesney said. Right before her death, Ruidl earned a second master’s degree in early childhood education from the Erikson Institute. McChesney and Ruidl bonded over their efforts to change the anticipated outcomes for children of color and their desire to break down inequities and infuse places with love and learning.
“I know that helps to break the trauma cycle in communities experiencing high poverty and violence,” McChesney said.
Before she died, Ruidl shared many times with McChesney her dream of tending to the children who visited the jail. The day of her funeral, Ruidl’s mother asked McChesney to please keep the dream alive.
McChesney did, and now she hopes that like K.D., every child who visits benefits from that dream.
“The space is really about love — love for Becca and her brave mom, and love for the kids and caregivers who come to visit the Maximum Security Division of Cook County Department of Corrections,” McChesney said.
Chicago Beyond and the Cook County sheriff’s office have expanded their outreach to the children and families who visit the jail.
K.D.’s aunt, Yazrenique Andry, is pleased to see the changes in the lobby and is hopeful that her nephew will develop a different connection to the jail and foster a positive impact in his life as he grows older visiting his father there.
“Coming here is going to be memorable for him because he is going to see his father,” Andry said. “But now, the kid-friendly space can create a positive impact on him instead of (the children) sitting in a dry, depressing space.”
The boy’s dad is awaiting trial, so the family doesn’t know how much longer he will be there. But Andry said that she and K.D. have visited every week since he was incarcerated.
Having a parent who is incarcerated can have a negative impact on young children’s lives if they don’t have appropriate resources or ample support, said Jones Tapia. Children are at risk of having lower educational achievements, can experience mental distress, are at increased likelihood for substance abuse, and at risk of incarceration themselves, she said.
“But understanding that we can mitigate all those negative experiences by just allowing children to maintain that positive connection with their incarcerated loved one is important to change that narrative,” Jones Tapia said.
The educational nook, she said, will help change that narrative. And though it was Ruidl’s dream, the “project came to life because of the commitment of so many people in the community.”
Lakeshore Learning, the preschool furniture company, donated items; Scholastic Publishing is supplying 50 new books each month; multiple children’s authors are donating their books to the space; and Google Kids and Families donated books so that children can choose a book to keep while visiting a detained family member. Artist Steve Musgrave created the mural that adorns the entrance.
“We know the impact that book ownership has on kids, and the role of early literacy programming in spaces like this, where families have a long dwell time,” McChesney said. “The role of play as a shield for trauma, what happens when care is given to caregivers and how that helps to reduce anxiety and stress for the whole family at this vulnerable time.”
Jones Tapia added that Chicago Beyond will also work to implement a more humanistic framework for family visitations at other institutions.