Grad student’s side project keeps incarcerated parents connected with their kids

Zachary Diggins with the website he's designing for Companions Journeying Together. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Zachary Diggins’ research revolves around the effects of gamma radiation on robots — vital work so that one day machines, not people, can be used to address disasters such as the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. He expects to earn his Vanderbilt University Ph.D. in electrical engineering next year.

But Diggins wanted a way to improve the world on a smaller scale, right away, so he looked for a web project to do, something that would elevate a longtime hobby into charitable work. A visit to connected him with Companions Journeying Together – a nonprofit best known for volunteers who record incarcerated parents reading storybooks to their children.

The problem: In a digital world, Companions Journeying Together still burns CDs to mail to children. It’s time-consuming, costly and impractical. The nonprofit’s leaders needed a cloud storage solution, but Diggins new system ultimately went much further.

“It was something where a web solution really helps a lot,” Diggins said. “CDs are expensive, take time to burn, and the children’s guardians don’t have as much access to a CD player as, say, their smartphones. Plus, I think it’s cool what CJT does — partnering with incarcerated parents so they stay connected with their children through a very important developmental stage.”

He began Skyping with Scott C. McWilliams, executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit, discussing the organization’s Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project. McWilliams said he appreciated Diggins’ talents and commitment from early on in the collaboration.

“Zac is spending a lot of time putting together the system, and along with that, he is also helping us capture and look at more closely a lot of data that we weren’t using,” McWilliams said.

With Diggins’ new system, Storybook Project volunteers help inmates select books to read, make digital recordings and upload those into Amazon’s cloud system. The website uses each book’s International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to easily locate and mail hard copies to children’s guardians, along with an automatically generated letter with a login to hear the incarcerated parent reading. The system also generates postage.

Diggins recently demonstrated how it works.

“This is your mom, and I am going to read you ‘Andrew’s Loose Tooth,’” one anonymous woman’s voice chirped from a computer speaker. She read it sweetly and with dramatic flair.

The new system also allows Companions Journeying Together to track data on clients served, book popularity and other aspects of the Storybook Project.

Diggins said designing the website takes time – about 10 hours a week since January, wedged around his challenging robotics work with Research Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Arthur Witulski at Vanderbilt’s Institute for Space and Defense Electronics – but he finds it fulfilling.

In addition to helping children learn to read and stay emotionally connected with their parents, he can use the skills learned in future endeavors.

“The projects you can do with the web skills is so powerful,” Diggins said. “Using the tools I learned, the web frameworks – there’s a lot you can build off of that.”

Diggins earned his bachelor’s degree from the School of Engineering in 2012 and was the school’s Banner Bearer. He graduated from Hoover (Ala.) High School in 2008 and is the son of Patrick and Sally Diggins of Hoover.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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