“Hey Nadia, what’s good today?” asks one visitor.
“Do you have that new book yet?” asks another.
The questions are commonplace, the answers rote. But for Nadia Bagdasar, such requests are anything but ordinary.
“It’s a great feeling when they ask me for a certain book or a recommendation from an author they’ve read before,” said Bagdasar. “I love that their interest has been sparked by something positive.”
Bagdasar is the librarian at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility – also known as the Byron Boys Ranch – and two days a week she opens the doors of the makeshift library to these young men 13 to 17 and helps them build their minds, vocabularies and ultimately their self-esteem.
“I’m always amazed at what voracious readers they are,” said Bagdasar. “Some of these boys had never read a book cover to cover until they came here. It’s very satisfying to see.”
The Byron Boys Ranch is an unlocked county facility designed to rehabilitate low-level delinquent youths who have committed non-violent, misdemeanor crimes. The average stay varies from one month to more than a year, depending upon the crime and the program imposed on them by the courts.
The Ranch’s library is tiny. More than 4,000 titles are crammed into available spaces – some perched on racks or moveable carts, others stacked on nearby shelves. But they’re all there: Gatsby, Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield and even a vampire named Edward.
“Oh, they read the ‘Twilight’ series,” laughed Bagdasar. “But of course they’ll never admit it.”
“John” (not his real name) might not confess to reading “Twilight,” but he will cop to being a reader. The tall and brawny 15-year-old said he feels “smarter” when he visits the library, and enjoys choosing from the myriad titles.
“You can never take in too much knowledge,” he said. “I like the way I feel when I get done with a book I liked.”
“Ernest,” another resident at the ranch, said his job as a library helper gives him a unique advantage over his peers. “I get to look at a lot more books and read the backs to see what they are about before I check them out,” said the 16-year-old. “When I’m here it’s kinda like having my own bookstore.”
But because the “bookstore” is so small, only five or six boys can visit at a time. When a visitor checks out his books and leaves, the next boy in line is allowed to enter. However, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Lesher Foundation, the library is currently undergoing an upgrade that, when complete, will nearly double its current size.
“It’s going to be great when it’s done,” said Bagdasar. “We’ll have new carpeting, shelves and room for a lot more books. We’re very grateful to be able to do this.”
In the meantime, Bagdasar – who is also the librarian at juvenile hall in Martinez – makes do, taking pains to offer the most she can to the boys in the time they’re with her. And most days, she succeeds.
“For me, the greatest thing is when I give them a book that speaks to them or their experiences,” said Bagdasar. “I love it when I see a boy lying on his bunk reading a book when before he would have been just sleeping or hanging out. It’s a wonderful thing to see. It makes me feel as though I’m making a difference.”