ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- What began as a Wisconsin man's tribute to his mother, a schoolteacher with a lifelong love of reading, has inspired an unorthodox approach to reducing crime in a south St. Louis neighborhood while honoring a murder victim.
In 2009, Todd Bol built a dollhouse-sized, one-room schoolhouse, filled it with books, painted "Take a Book, Return a Book" on it, and put it on his lawn. Soon, neighborhood kids helped themselves and word began to spread. The idea of exchanging free books from the miniature structures has taken off in communities worldwide as an official nonprofit named Little Free Libraries, according to its website.
Church groups and schools are often behind building and maintaining the tiny libraries in their communities. But in St. Louis, it's the police department that is heading up the effort with an eye toward improving relationships with the youth in Dutchtown and possibly reducing crime.
The police department's approach varies somewhat from the international nonprofit's model. Stickers on the libraries will encourage kids to "Take a Book, Keep a Book." And police officers will be handing out gift certificates to local businesses to children who leave book reports inside the box, said Capt. Dan Howard, who oversees the city's first district.
"We'll get some mileage out of the perception change when these kids see a uniformed cop on their porch or their friend's porch handing out gift certificates," Howard said. "When kids can see that, as opposed to all the bad stuff we encounter them for, the better."
Dutchtown has become the city's most populated neighborhood with the most crime -- accounting for about 5 percent of city crime through October. The next highest crime neighborhood is downtown, according to police statistics.
About three-fourths of crime in Dutchtown, bordered by Jefferson Avenue, and Chippewa, Meramec, Virginia and Walsh streets, is property crime, with the rest classified as person crimes, including five homicides this year.
One of those property crimes included the destruction of a community garden in September. Police quickly pinpointed the perpetrators as several juveniles between the ages of 12 and 16, who uprooted plants and destroyed any hope of a harvest.
Instead of arresting them, Howard reached out to Laura Novara, a civilian police department employee dedicated to keeping children out of trouble.
"It's easy to throw a kid in the system, but what if we can refocus them and get them to do something positive instead?" Howard said.
Novara armed herself with books to give them -- a gesture she said she always uses when befriending troubled youth.
"They call me the book lady," she said. "I've had people cry when I tell them they can keep the books I give them. The people around here just don't have the extra $15 to spend on buying a book. Just try to imagine your household without book time."
The children who destroyed the garden told her they were bored. So, she invited them to a community cleanup event to meet the residents they had let down. They all showed up, ready to work. And they have acted as guardians of the garden since then, updating Novara if they see something out of place or in need of attention.
"We haven't had a juvenile crime in the four blocks surrounding the garden ever since," Novara said.
It's what happened in the garden that makes Novara and Howard confident that Dutchtown youth will embrace the little libraries, and not vandalize them. And if they do, "We'll just put them right back up," Howard said defiantly.
Right around the time of the garden's rebirth, one of the neighborhood's most active residents and a Novara ally, Ursula Rudolf, was reading articles about the Little Free Libraries program. Rudolf also attends court proceedings as a volunteer to keep tabs on suspects from her neighborhood. She sat next to the family of Paul Reiter during a sentencing hearing for his killer.
Reiter, 58, was shot and killed outside of his Dutchtown home in May 2011 while dialing 911 to report a burglary at his neighbor's home. His family told Rudolf they wanted to memorialize him and benefit the neighborhood. Reiter was a longtime circulation manager for the St. Louis American and an avid reader, said his sister, Agnes "Aggie" Baldetti of New Florence, Mo.
"I remember while we were cleaning out his house," she said, pausing to compose herself. "My goodness, you couldn't imagine the amount of boxes of books he had. He was a really deep thinker, and we really never knew because he was such a clown. This is right on target. It's something Paul would have gotten involved in."
Illiteracy and crime are closely related. More than 70 percent of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level, according to the Department of Justice. And two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade end up on welfare or in jail, according to the National Assessment on Adult Literacy.
"Wouldn't it be great if just one of two kids would start to think a little differently because reading opens up worlds to you?" Baldetti said. "Maybe these kids can have better thoughts and an understanding of the world through literacy."
Reiter's seven siblings paid for the materials to make three of the free-standing libraries. His employer paid for three more. An anonymous Dutchtown resident built the boxes, which will bear Reiter's name along with police logos and themes like the mounted police and motorcycle unit.
Novara dubbed the effort "Cops Care Libraries." She put collection barrels at all of the area police stations, asking officers to donate books to the cause. And Howard will be ordering his officers to stock the boxes while out patrolling their beats.
Depending on how things go this next year, the department may expand the program to other neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, Reiter's family will join with police, volunteers and residents for a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open the book stands.
"It's so Paul," his sister said.
Copyright 2013 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune News Service