BEAVERCREEK — COVID-19 didn’t cancel one mother’s reading books to her sons.
The unconventional storytime — orchestrated by local non-profit Story Chain through Greene County Board of Developmental Disabilities (GCBDD) — now plays on repeat with the push of a button and a set of headphones. Thanks to the program, electronically-inclined Javon Yoakum, of Beavercreek, has access to 90 minutes of stories narrated by 10 familiar voices, including his mother Dee’s.
All of the books that Dee Yoakum read and recorded for her 23-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, have some meaning.
“I quite enjoy doing this. It brings back memories of reading to both of my boys,” Dee said. “I think with Javon, we read pretty much in rhythm as we always had. We kinda picked up more or less where we were years ago.”
“Stellaluna” tells the story of a fruit bat who reunites with her mother. Javon’s copy from fourth grade was in “literal pieces” they had read it so many times.
“Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns it’s OK to Back Away” chronicles a rabbit who learns how to deal with anger, while “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” follows the life of a china rabbit searching for his place in the world.
And “Your Very Own Robot” allows the reader — or listener — to pick an ending.
If it hadn’t been for a choose-your-own-adventure story — and its narrator Jonathan Platt — Dee might not have enrolled in Story Chain, which began as a program in Greene and Montgomery County jails.
“I’ve listened to him tell these amazing adventure stories on the Zoom storytimes with Greene County Board of Developmental Disabilities,” Dee explained. “When I first heard his voice, I was busy down the hall doing laundry. I stuck my head out and said, ‘Who’s that? What’s that? What’s going to happen?’ I kept getting a little closer to hear the story better.”
Hearing Platt — Story Chain’s executive director —was the confirmation Dee needed to pursue the program. She had been toying with ideas about how to help her younger son, 21-year-old Karron, who is also on the spectrum.
Once enrolled, Dee got to work.
But her experience is different than other GCBDD clients who had participated earlier in the year. They had access to in-person sessions and a recording studio.
“It’s weird, everything is in slow motion. We are walking waist-deep in clay,” Platt said, describing the new norm. “It’s hard to catch people at the right time and open the book and read … The interaction is missed … But when we get the parents on the phone and have them read a story — I put it on speaker phone and listen and give them tips on how to do better — it’s fun, it’s good.”
Once Dee’s over-the-phone reading workshops were complete, Platt dropped off a recorder at her house. She had 48 hours to record her stories.
Trying to find a quiet place in her house, without her family talking or the dog barking, was the challenge.
“I was told quite often some of my sound effects were interesting,” Dee said, laughing. “You either re-record or just keep going and hope that they can edit it out.”
Mary Evans — lead audio editor and program manager at Story Chain — cleaned up the audio, added effects and music, and uploaded the stories to an MP3 player. Evans said although the new process isn’t as personal as it was in pre-pandemic times, it’s refreshing.
“It brings everyone together more. No one knows what anyone looks like until we deliver the MP3 players,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s too impersonal; it’s just right. We’re making do with what we have, producing great material, exemplifying what Story Chain is all about — elocution, adult literacy, having that moment with the parent and the child.”
Evans speaks from experience, because she, too, has had that moment. Through Story Chain, she read stories to her own three children while she was incarcerated. So watching Javon receive his player was especially rewarding.
Platt — masked and gloved — delivered the finished player to the Yoakums’ front door July 16.
Javon slipped off his mask for a brief moment, revealing a big smile.
“I don’t think he took off the ear buds until we removed it from his head,” Dee said later.
“What a gift to give somebody,” she added, “to have a book right there at their ears — whether it’s in their hands or not — to listen to and enjoy, to put the mind at ease. The world stops for just a little bit and you can go somewhere else to think of something positive or pleasant.”
Brother Karron, who had received his own three weeks prior, watched the exchange. He often turns on his player before he goes to bed, listening to his mother’s comforting voice, or Beavercreek Officer Mark Brown’s, who has become the brothers’ mentor and friend.
Evans noticed that Karron had his own earphones around his neck that day of the second delivery.
“You’re doing all this work and you wonder if children will even utilize it,” Evans said. “That’s proof that the work you did is important, that the children are excited.”