BYRON -- When Joel gets lost within the pages of a book, it helps the teenager to mentally leave the monotony of life in a juvenile rehabilitation center.
Now he and other boys at the low-risk Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility will have more opportunities to escape through reading.
An expansion project at the rural facility, also known as the Byron Boys Ranch, has more than doubled the size of the old library, which both residents and staff say was cramped. New books were also added to its collection, along with a circulation desk.
"Now we can call it a proper library. There's a lot more room (for the boys) now and space for the collection of books to grow," said Nadia Bagdasar, librarian for the boys ranch.
Adds County Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho of Discovery Bay: "(The expansion) gives them an opportunity to expand their horizons and provides access to the outside world."
The old 171-square-foot Lesher Library, originally opened in May 2008, occupied a small space in a corner of the facility's recreation room. Only a few wards could fit in the room at once, Bagdasar said.
Joel, whose full name is being withheld to protect his identity, and about a half-dozen other boys were able to comfortably fit in the new area during free time Thursday afternoon and peruse the nearly 4,600 volumes of books to find their next literary adventure.
The boys go to the library twice a week.
"(Books) can be like watching a movie," said Joel, adding he sometimes draws parallels between himself and the protagonists in the books.
He recently completed the book "Once A King, Always A King: The Unmaking of a Latin King," the story of author Reymundo Sanchez' struggle after leaving a street gang. The teen spent Thursday thumbing through mystery novels for his next read.
The popularity of the new library is already showing: 78 of the 89 wards at the facility have a book checked out, Bagdasar said.
"I never really read when I was on the outside," Joel said. "Now I read all the time."
Many of the boys are "reluctant readers," and have little to no experience reading books, said Arthur Fernandez of the Contra Costa Probation Department and a supervisor at the facility.
Resident Chris is like many at the facility who start by looking at picture books, then work toward reading into young adult fiction books and finally novels.
Some selections are stories that "reflect their life experiences," Fernandez said.
The library includes reference pamphlets that point wards toward books about the Bay Area, being locked up and drugs. It has a balanced selection of "what is appropriate and entertaining," Fernandez said.
Harvey Samuels, a member of the county's Juvenile Justice Commission, said the expanded library and pushing literacy "helps open up a path" to keep the boys out of the system.
"It can make a big difference," he said.
The Byron book facility, funded by community donations, was originally created at the urging of some wards transferred from Juvenile Hall in Martinez who were accustomed to checking out books. A recurring theme emerged with the Friends of the Library group about two years ago that it needed to be expanded, Bagdasar said.
The add-on meant tearing out the wall between the library and the phone room next door, said Mike Fox, a shop teacher at the ranch.
The boys helped demolish the wall and built the new shelving for the room, he said.
"I think they were able to gain an appreciation and have pride in their work, knowing that this is their own little community and five, 10 years later, their handiwork will still be here," Fox said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.