The REACH BAG is a durable backpack maintained in the first responder vehicle. It’s 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. First responders use the books to comfort 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, 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!
Virtually every first responder vehicle in Dane County and every State Patrol squad in Wisconsin is carrying a REACH BAG. That first responder, who initially looked scary, is now sitting next to the child holding some books. One is chosen and they read it together. The child feels 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 immediate trauma. Research has shown that this diversion can significantly reduce the likelihood of PTSD or other long-term 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 aligns with the age parameters (2 to 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. Stuffed animals are more difficult to transport and to keep clean, and there is the concern that stuffed animals may provide comfort but do not distract the child from the crisis at hand.
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 found that by providing a child with a book, the response in virtually every situation is positive. The child becomes more emotionally stable, and the first responder takes pride in helping to resolve a very difficult situation.
Another member of the REACH Advisory Council, Milwaukee County Deputy Kristine Camarillo reflects on how the 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, any dollars raised within a community go right back in the form of a REACH BAG to 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 is $150 and 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 noncrisis 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 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, similarly to Officer Foy, 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 percent. 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 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.
We also welcome guests to our events posted on the website, especially the monthly Apps & Taps, which are a great way to learn about the organization while spending time with other passionate professionals.
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!
Curt Fuszard is the executive director at REACH-A-Child.