Matt Sioson, a UC Santa Cruz third-year student majoring in legal studies, reaches behind his desk and collects a handful of crisp uniform envelopes. He singles one out, opens it, and takes out a letter that reads “family is everything.” This is only one of the dozens he has received in the last week.
These letters are from incarcerated family members in California who participated in the “Walls To Bridges Book Project.” The Project acts as a third party between the two, and mails books from incarcerated family members to children.
The Walls to Bridges Book Project always welcomes donations, which include books, and shipping supplies. The organization has 15 volunteers in San Diego, Santa Cruz, and the East Bay. If you are interested in supporting the project through donations, Matt’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since its establishment, the “Wall to Bridges Book Project” has mailed books to 400 children based on weekly requests from their families. This idea developed during the onset of COVID-19, when it became increasingly difficult to visit family members in prisons. The project was started to respond to the needs of system-impacted children — a group particularly affected by mass incarceration.
The books are donated from the community or collected from libraries and schools. Sioson and his team of 15 volunteers are spread across Northern California. Upon receiving a request, they work together to find a book and mail it to the child, placing a sticker and card from their family member on the outside.
“Children of incarcerated parents could face trouble in education and staying in school,” Sioson said. “That’s the other aspect of the book project, if we can get some kids into reading early, who wouldn’t otherwise have access to books, or maybe they wouldn’t be interested in reading, and we can get them to fall in love with a series. […] We could really have a long term impact on their schooling.”
Sioson takes his time with each mail-in request to choose the perfect book. Books from the Harry Potter or Percy Jackson series are popular choices, though some ask for books about hockey, science, or how to navigate your early teenage years. For Sioson, a book that shows children that their family is thinking about them helps foster a connection often broken when their loved ones go to jail.
Recently, Sioson was awarded $15,000 in funding from the Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation for his work as director of the Walls to Bridges Book Project. The Strauss Foundation chooses 15 California college sophomores and juniors each year to receive funding for a public or community service project.
“Strauss’ money is just going to keep us going the way we are, and take that headache away of looking for our next donors,” Sioson said. “We can really just put our heads down, strap more books, send them out, and help our kids.”
It’s not always glamorous work, though — a lot of time is spent lifting heavy boxes or worrying about donations, but the Strauss Foundation’s donation has made it easier and has kept the book project alive.
Sioson has held on to all of the letters he has received from incarcerated family members during his time with the project.
“We go through all these requests, and we send all these books, but when I see this stack of letters, I know that each one of these is one father or mother or grandfather that we’ve helped out,” Sioson said. “It’s really special to me. And that’s why I continue to work on the project.”
Last summer, Sioson stumbled upon a flyer recruiting volunteers for the Walls to Bridges Book Project. Eager to serve his community, Sioson persisted through several rounds of interviews before speaking with the project’s founder, Alyssa Tambor, who instantly knew she wanted Sioson on the team.
“He understands the importance of connection,” Tambor said. “For a project centered all around family connection and communication, I think it’s important to have someone in charge who understands that.”
Tambor recently passed the reins of the Walls to Bridges Book Project to Sioson, who is now its director. Tambor is the child of a formerly incarcerated parent, which prompted her to create the project to help children who are often left behind in the conversation about the American criminal justice system.
Although he does not share the same experience as Tambor, Sioson describes himself as a family-oriented person, which comes from his cultural upbringing in a Filipino home. Tambor believes Sioson has taken the project to a whole new level through his dedication.
“Families like these that are systemically kept from their parents really breaks my heart,” Sioson said. “As someone who’s very close to my parents, I wanted to help out and do everything I can with my privilege to help others and hopefully, foster and help that relationship and other families.”