Each day Hamilton County Juvenile Court is in session, young children, sometimes numbering in the dozens, spend untold hours in the lobby. Their stories are varied: Some are there because a sibling will be appearing before a judge, and their mother or father was unable to arrange for daycare. Others are present to testify in cases of abuse. Whatever their reasons for being in the building, their experiences are rarely positive, and their unbounded energy can make the lobby a noisy cacophony.
This has the potential to change with the launch of a children’s library in the lobby of the courthouse. Children up to and including teens will be able to select one or more books from among about 500 currently on the shelves and read, or be read to, while they wait. In some cases, they’ll even be able to check out the books, allowing them to take everything from “I Knew An Old Lady” to a young adult version of Homer’s “Iliad” and “ Odyssey” home.
Launching the library was a joint volunteer effort of Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey, the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association, the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Tennessee Bar Association Green Form Construction, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), and others.
The idea, says Judge Bailey, who for years has wanted a children’s library at the courthouse, was not to just relieve the lobby of congestion and noise but also to spark in children an interest in learning to read.
“We have children come through the detention center who have been out of school for a long time, and when we test them, we’re amazed at how many are functionally illiterate,” Judge Bailey says. “So, if we don’t reach out to these children at the first possible opportunity, we might miss out on a chance to engage a child who might want to become part of an educational process.”
Denise Black, CASA coordinator, which provides volunteer advocates for children who have been abused or neglected, says she hopes the library will make kids more comfortable while they’re at the courthouse and give them something positive to take away from the experience.
The library is tucked into a cozy space near the front of the lobby, with red and blue bookshelves forming a border that separates the reading area from the rest of the entrance hall. A small table and a set of tiny chairs rests on thick, spongy tiles that are locked together like puzzle pieces to form a cheerful patchwork of primary colors, with each tile sporting a bright yellow letter “A” or a vivid green number “1.”
Among the books are about 100 selections donated by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, which receives books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library that fail to reach the intended recipients. Parton’s Imagination library provides pre-school children and their families with a specially selected book each month.
The library is designed to catch the eyes of young ones, while the books are meant to engage their minds. Judge Bailey is thrilled.
“I’ve wanted this for years. But no one was able to provide it until this group of volunteers came along. I love it,” she says.