Books, backpacks for kids given to First Responders

Curtis J. Fuszard
Executive Director REACH-A-Child

REACH-A-Child (“REACH”) is a small, Madison based nonprofit with a big mission. Since 2007, it has been delivering children’s books and backpacks at no cost to First Responders across Wisconsin. It’s not stopping until every First Responder vehicle in the state is equipped with a “REACH BAG”.

The REACH BAG is a durable backpack maintained in the First Responder vehicle. It is initially equipped with 10 new, vetted children’s books and 10 drawstring backpacks. The REACH BAGs are refilled every six months or sooner if requested.

The First Responders use the books to comfort the children they encounter in crisis situations. Imagine being a child and suddenly experiencing the worst day of your life. It might be a car accident, a fire at the house or a domestic disturbance.

All of a sudden, these strangers in oversized uniforms arrive, people are yelling and confusion reigns. Is someone hurt? Why is the ambulance here? Why is Mommy crying out? Please, make this bad situation go away!

Every Sheriff’s Department vehicle in 16 counties – and every State Patrol squad in Wisconsin – is carrying a REACH BAG. That First Responder, who initially looked scary, is now sitting next to me holding some books. We choose one and read it together. Somehow, I feel transformed to another place – a safe place.

The Power of a Book

The power of a book serves to both comfort the child and distract him or her from the imby mediate trauma. Research has shown that this diversion can significantly reduce the likelihood of PTSD or other longterm emotional affects.

The books included in the REACH BAGs come from a variety of sources including local authors and book distributors. Each is carefully vetted to ensure it is aligned with the age parameters (2-12) and content requirements. Diversity is encouraged, while references to violence or religion are excluded.

First Responders advise that books are very easy to store and transport, unlike stuffed animals (which are also difficult to keep clean). Another concern expressed is that stuffed animals may provide comfort but will not distract the child from the crisis at hand.

First Responders

Chief Mike Koval of the Madison Police Department and a member of the REACH Advisory Council has been a strong ambassador of the organization for many years. He often notes the special challenge facing First Responders who are not parents attempting to comfort a traumatized child.

He and his colleagues have found that by providing the child with a book, the response in virtually every situation is positive. The child becomes more emotionally stable, and the First Responder takes justifiable pride in helping to resolve a very difficult situation.

Another member of the REACH Advisory Council, Milwaukee County Deputy Kristine Camarillo, reflected on how that Department views the importance of REACH BAGs. She notes that vehicles are not allowed to leave the garage unless they are carrying a REACH BAG, per instructions from the Sheriff.

How It Works

With few exceptions, every dollar raised within a community goes right back in the form of a REACH BAG to the local First Responders. When a call was received recently from the Marshfield Fire Department requesting a REACH BAG for each of the four vehicles, the staff and REACH immediately contacted businesses and organizations in the city.

That same day, Culver’s of Marshfield agreed to fund the REACH BAGs. (The first-year cost for a REACH BAG of $150 includes the durable backpack, 20 new children’s books and 20 individual drawstring backpacks.) Likewise, the employees of Colony Brands funded REACH BAGs for the 27 First Responder vehicles in Monroe.

To complement the money raised in the various communities, REACH hosts four major fundraisers each year. Proceeds are used to provide REACH BAGs to smaller communities who may not have obvious sources for funding.

The Next Iteration

Officer Tommy Foy spent many years walking the streets of Sun Prairie as part of his patrol. Shortly after joining the REACH Advisory Council, he suggested that books should also be available for non-crisis situations. His routine was to engage with boys and girls in Sun Prairie by offering them a book to take home and read.

Officer Foy instructed them to provide a summary of the book when they next connected. Upon doing so, the child was offered another book, and so on. Thanks to Officer Tommy Foy, children in Sun Prairie are building their own personal library.

We have shared this story with every First Responder Department receiving our resources. Without exception, they willingly accept additional books which they may use for formal events such as “National Night Out” or “Shop with a Cop”. Some are using them – as Officer Foy did – as an alternative to a sticker or playing card.

Thanks to the two distribution channels (crisis and routine engagements) and the expansion of our program across the state, we were able to provide 17,132 books to First Responders last year – an increase of 78%. This year our goal is to provide 22,000 books, a pace which we are currently exceeding.

Want to Learn More?

We encourage the public to visit our website (www.reachachild.org) to view the list of communities we are currently serving. We still have much work to do as we build awareness across the state.

Our request to all interested parties is to take time to sincerely thank our First Responders. Their service to our communities is often unnoticed and seldom appreciated. As our “clients”, we know how challenging their jobs are, and we simply cannot say “Thank You” enough!


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