Book delivery from Philly kids to federal detention center hits snag

At Mighty Writers El Futuro in South Philadelphia, children donate books and make bookmarks for kids and immigrant families held at the Berks County Detention Center. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

At Mighty Writers El Futuro in South Philadelphia, children donate books and make bookmarks for kids and immigrant families held at the Berks County Detention Center. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Frustrated. Angry. Irritated.

That’s how Tim Whitaker is feeling after a brief phone call cancelled his organization’s plans Tuesday to deliver more than a 100 books to children at the Berks Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for people awaiting decisions on their immigration cases.

The goal was to provide a token of comfort and escape to the roughly 20 kids living at the detention center.

“They gave us a commitment. We marched ahead with that commitment. I feel foolish for having believed that it would hold up, and I feel like the kids at the detention center are missing out on really cool new books,” said Whitaker, executive director of Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that teaches students to be stronger scribes.

According to Whitaker, the center’s executive director reached out Monday afternoon with a short message: We already have a “robust library.” Take your books elsewhere.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that operates the center, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To Whitaker, the last-minute phone call is particularly disappointing because a group of Spanish-speaking students with the program spent time creating a batch of personalized bookmarks to go with the special delivery. Many of them have undocumented family members.

“It’s only 1 degree of separation from the kids we work with and the kids at the detention center. You know, it was a little bonding experience for them,” said Whitaker.

The vast majority of the families at the center are from Central America, either Guatemala or Honduras. At least one family is Romanian.

Whitaker said Mighty Writers will keep trying to deliver books to Berks and, in the meantime, look for other detention centers around the country that are willing to take them.

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