Community Outreach Librarian, Twinsburg Public Library, OH
MLIS, Kent State University, OH, 2006
Photo by Patrick Heagney
A few years ago, then youth services manager Katie Johnson noticed that no one from Pinewood Gardens, a subsidized housing development near the Twinsburg Public Library, was coming to story time. She reached out to the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA) to ask about setting up a weekly story time at the site, home to nearly 95 low-income kids under five. The answer was yes, and Johnson partnered with AMHA employee Kellie Morehouse to create Play, Learn, & Grow, an early learning and support program, in a vacant room near the leasing office.
While Johnson planned to focus on story time, crafts, and free play, she immediately “saw everything that these families lacked: employment, education, transportation, proper health care, access to preschool, even reliable phone service,” she wrote in an article in School Library Journal (“Ohio Storytime Turns into Life-Changing Program for Low-Income Families,” SLJ 2/16). Many didn’t have enough to eat. “With major stresses in their lives, our young participants weren’t going to make great strides.”
Most of these kids didn’t attend any pre-K learning programs, owing to lack of busing for the local Head Start program and too many requirements for busing to the local school district.
Johnson spearheaded partnerships and gathered wide-ranging support. Many children were behind on vaccinations, so she arranged for Ohio Department of Health representatives to provide them for free at story time. The local Women, Infants, and Children center opened a weekly on-site health-care clinic. A United Way grant funded lunch during story time, and Johnson arranged for a food bank to distribute fresh produce to residents. Partnering with AMHA and Ohio’s Child Guidance & Family Solutions, she homed in on maternal depression. Twice a month, the moms meet separately from the youngsters to discuss their challenges. “We remind parents that it’s okay to ask for advice, and it’s important to create a support system,” says Johnson.
Currently, her team is seeking funding for a shuttle bus or to bring a pop-up preschool to the development. In the meantime, “We see positive outcomes every week,” she says, ranging from “a child getting evaluated for a developmental delay” to “mothers getting to talk to a licensed therapist.”
Having parents who loved to read “provided an incredible foundation for me and my siblings,” adds Johnson. “I’d like to work with other public libraries and housing authorities on creating [similar] programs. It’s 2017; we need to find a way to get all children to preschool.”