Person of the Week: Julia Burney-Witherspoon

Police officer gives underprivileged kids the gift of reading.

ByABC News
September 26, 2008, 11:43 AM

Sept. 26, 2008— -- As a police officer, Julia Burney-Witherspoon patrolled the rough streets and tough neighborhoods in Racine, Wis. When called to troubled homes, she would notice there were few children's books -- or worse, no children's books at all.

"I have a special place in my heart for books," Burney-Witherspoon said. "When people think poverty, they think no food, no clothes, no shelter, but no one ever thinks no books."

While her job meant throwing the book at criminals, she kept in the back of her mind that she wanted to find a way to get books into the homes of poor children.

"I am the oldest of 12. I taught all my brothers and sisters how to read," she said. "I'll tell you, to this day [they say] thank you for teaching us. I made them read. I force-fed reading to my brothers and sisters."

In 1997, she responded to a false burglar alarm at a warehouse.

"When the lights came on, there were all these children's books, and I just knew those books were for me," she said. "I just thought, 'Oh, thank you, these are mine!'"

For Burney-Witherspoon, it felt like a miracle, stumbling on 10,000 children's books that were going to be destroyed due to tiny publishing imperfections, she said. She knew that the books deserved better homes, and the warehouse owner said that she could have them.

Burney-Witherspoon organized a book giveaway for the Racine community.

"We did it on that Saturday, and in one day 10,000 books were gone," she said with pride.

From that day forward, Racine police officers kept books in the trunks of their squad cars to give to kids.

"I would see kids reading books at bus stops and I would say -- because I knew the officers had given them those books -- 'Where you guys get these books?'" she recalled. "'We didn't steal these books, Officer Burney; the police gave us these books.' And my heart was just, thank you, yes!"

Burney-Witherspoon founded an after-school reading center for children, ages 2 through middle school, called "Cops 'N Kids," keeping alive her passion of public book donations.

Since it began, Burney-Witherspoon's "Cops 'N Kids" has spread to more than 70 other communities around the country.

"A lot of kids are just natural readers, but they just didn't have anything to read," she said. "It's special to me, because it's like I'm giving books to little Julia, because I didn't have any."

In 2001, Burney-Witherspoon retired from the police force and took on a full-time role at "Cops 'N Kids." She spends her time teaching children the same joy of reading she had in her youth.

Her program provided a much needed public service for children from low-income families to find a sense of community and greater purpose.

"When I see them reading a book, I know that they have a chance," Burney-Witherspoon said in a hopeful tone. "If they just keep reading, keep reading ... that's their shot."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events