Nonprofit Starfish Assignment books time for officers, students

A. Kevin Corvo
ThisWeek group
Whitehall Division of Police officer Tanner Williams reads a book to children as Jack Carl films him during a Facebook Live event for Books and Badges on Aug. 31.

Whitehall Division of Police officer Tanner Williams says he loves interacting with children in the community.

Starfish Assignment, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that Columbus resident Nicole Banks founded in 2018, is giving him and other central Ohio police officers the opportunity to do that and more.

One of the nonprofit’s programs is Books and Badges, which involves police officers reading to elementary-aged children.

The program has continued to expand even after the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic required it to move online when school buildings were closed by the state in mid-March.

“I thought it was a great way to reach kids,” said Williams, who read “You’re Here for a Reason” by Nancy Tillman – on the endorsement of his 3-year-old-son, Carson – to a live audience of children on Facebook Live on Aug. 31.

“I was nervous, but it was a good experience, and I am always happy to participate with anything that shows police in a positive image and that helps us and the community connect,” he said.

At the conclusion of the reading, Williams walked to his cruiser and treated the children to a lights-and-siren show.

The online model of Books and Badges is similar to what began in Columbus schools, recreational facilities and parochial and charter schools at the start of the year, except without the personal interaction, Banks said.

The lack of in-person readings also prevents the officers from engaging in the question-and-answer sessions that follow live readings and distributing signed copies of the book read.

“But like everyone else, we are improvising,” Banks said.

Venues and audiences, both online and in person, typically are suggested, she said.

“It’s a mix of officers choosing them and teachers, principals or (Columbus Recreation and Parks Department) directors asking us to come in,” Banks said.

In addition to encouraging children to read, the program builds bridges among children and officers in a friendly and constructive manner, she said.

Columbus Deputy Chief Tim Becker, who has read to children, encourages officers to participate. 

“It’s a way to get in front of kids and break down barriers,” he said.

During live readings, Becker said, children have the opportunity to ask questions, including what to do if they see a gun or how to respond to any number of potentially dangerous situations.

“Those conversations are as equally important as reading, (and) books are the common road to get us there,” said Becker, who is a member of the board of directors of Starfish Assignment. 

The name, Banks explained, is based on the parable of a man who questions why a boy is throwing beached starfish into the ocean.

The boy tells the man he is saving the starfish, to which the man responds there are too many to save.

“The boy picks up another, and after throwing it back, says, ‘But I saved that one,’ ” Banks said. “I know there are too many people for us to help them all, but if we can help one,” it makes a difference.

The first Books and Badges live reading was at a Columbus elementary school in December.

“But we pivoted to live Facebook events (during the pandemic), and it has continued to find success,” Banks said.

Live in-person readings have resumed, including several at Columbus Recreation and Parks Department facilities.

Starfish Assignment got its start two years ago.

In July 2018, Banks, who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and her son encountered a veteran, Jim Stewart, living in his car, which had a Purple Heart license plate, in a grocery store parking lot. 

“We wanted to stop to give him food,” Banks said.

Eventually, through the donation of about $10,000 from multiple donors solicited through social media, Stewart received a “new” used car and an apartment.

“Then we thought, ‘Now what?’ I can’t go around looking in parking lots for people to help,” Banks said.

So she reached out to Columbus police to identify those in need of what she calls “micro-actions,” or providing support, direction and help for problems not addressed by large-scope social programs.

That led to Starfish Assignment and its programs, which include Books and Badges, established through a $10,000 donation from a charity group called 100 Men Who Give a Damn, Banks said. 

Jim Mitchell, a member of 100 Men Who Give a Damn, said it is modeled after an organization known as 100+ Women Who Care, and he learned about the men’s organization through a newspaper article.

“I took that idea back to my friends (four years ago at the Worthington Hills Country Club), and we started it here,” Mitchell said. 

The membership is more than 100 today and fluid; the organization does not have officers or a bank account. 

“We meet four times a year, and each person simply writes a direct check to the (chosen) charity,” he said. “The idea is to help the small charities that get overlooked.” 

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo