In inner-city Racine, Wis., where gang members gather on corners and graffiti is a prominent form of literature, fifth grader Tranesha Hill has found an unlikely hangout: one with more than 5,000 books and a retired police officer in charge. "At home you get bothered," says Tranesha, 11, curled up with the latest Harry Potter at the Cops 'n' Kids Reading Center. "Here it's fun, and you get privacy to read."

Getting kids to see the connection between fun and reading is what former Racine patrolwoman Julia Mae Burney, 51, had in mind when she opened the center last June. At least 30 kids a day drop by the three-story building—once a dilapidated hulk—to lose themselves in stories or borrow a book. Burney and her volunteers offer hugs as well as literacy tutorials, and read aloud to the youngest visitors from The Cat in the Hat or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Along with colorful murals and comfy sofas, the center offers an advantage over public libraries: It doesn't charge late fees, a hardship for poor families, but simply suspends borrowing privileges until a tardy book is returned. "If you lose or damage a library book, you owe money, so parents say, 'No, don't you go there,' " Burney explains. "We want kids to see this as a happy place—and to learn to use the library."

During her 16 years as a cop, Burney noticed that the kids she met on her beat had one thing in common: "There were no books in their homes. They had no way to imagine a better life." Then, in 1997, she was called to a warehouse burglary (a false alarm, as it turned out) and found 10,000 children's books, unsold and headed for the shredder. "I knew they were mine," she says. "It was the answer to my prayers." The owner gave the books to Burney, who got her fellow cops to distribute them from their squad cars—a program that continues with books donated by Racine residents. "Kids wave you down like crazy," says officer Todd Morschhauser. "They know you've got books in the trunk."

But Burney knew that providing books wasn't enough for kids who often had no comfortable place to read them. So in 1998 she persuaded a developer to give her a building that had been abandoned for 28 years. Individuals, corporations and unions helped fund the renovation and donated labor. "I'd never volunteered in my life, but I love being around Julia," says Shannon Schoenberger, a former retail executive. "She's inspirational." Oprah Winfrey pitched in too, inviting Burney onto her show, handing over a $100,000 check from her Angel Network charity and filling the Cops 'n' Kids Reading Center with new furniture. "You can't say no to Julia," says retired Racine police chief Richard Polzin. "What she does comes from her heart."

Her siblings agree. Julia Mae was the oldest of 12 children of Clyde Oliver, a Racine factory worker, and Ruby, a restaurant employee, both deceased. Her parents were hardworking and loving, says Burney, but they were also alcoholics whose fights sometimes grew violent, forcing her to call the police. At age 8, she decided to be a cop when she grew up. "They made me feel safe," she says. So did reading, into which she escaped, taking her brothers and sisters with her. "If I didn't know a word, she'd explain it, then make me write it down 10 times to remember it," says sister Dale, 45, a homemaker. "I got my love of books from her."

Burney's children did too. By the time she graduated from high school in 1969, she had given birth to two of her four kids—Vanessa, 34, a Racine police officer; Varnard, 33, an Army sergeant; Veronica, 32, a factory supervisor; and VaCora, 27, a dentist. (Married to laborer Eddie Burney in 1978, she was divorced two years later.) "She taught us," says Vanessa, "that no one can take knowledge away from you."

In 1984, after stints as a teacher's assistant and a chef, Burney put on a blue uniform—and began racking up awards. "She could get suspects to confess and make them feel that confessing was the right thing to do," says Polzin. That was never her favorite part of the job, however. "I tried to patrol in a way that I was their protector, more than their arresting officer," she says. "My badge had a lot of tears on it, but that was okay by me."

Burney retired from the force last February, but not from her community. She works the fund-raising circuit and distributes books from her van. But she is happiest at the center, a block from the modest home she shares with her cocker spaniel Buster. So are kids like Chris Miller, 9. "It's got clean floors, you can slip around in socks," he reports, "and you can read anything you want."

Christina Cheakalos
Barbara Sandler in Racine

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  • Barbara Sandler.