Youth Services Administrator, Dallas Public Library
MLS, University of North Texas, Denton, 2008
Photo by Frank Hamilton
Feeding Minds—and Bodies
As youth services administrator for the Dallas Public Library (DPL), Melissa Dease coordinates children’s programs and initiatives at all 29 library locations. It’s a role she takes to heart. Dease began in 2013, a time of “low staff morale, depressed operating budget, and skeleton staffing levels,” says nominator Jo Giudice, DPL director. Though Dease had been a librarian for nine years, she was new to youth services. “Despite her inexperience—or perhaps because of it—she has taken a holistic approach to children’s services, identifying how the library’s children’s programming can make a difference in the community and the city,” says Giudice.
DPL’s kids’ programming aims to close the opportunity gap for the 30 percent of Dallas children who live in poverty. “Some of those neighborhoods have very little of anything outside of schools, convenience stores, parks—and libraries,” Dease says. “If kids [are unable to] get to the opportunities that are out there, whether because of cost or distance or busy parents, I bring the opportunities to them.”
Those programs include annual summer reading clubs, poetry competitions, and a “Discovery Faire,” at which children’s organizations from across the city provide hands-on projects and demonstrations.
But it’s not just opportunity Dease provides: it’s sustenance. In 2015, she partnered with the antihunger organization Equal Heart to serve lunch at library branches through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer food program. That fall, the partnership brought after-school meals to nine branches and by the end of the school year had served 9,158 meals. In summer 2016, the program expanded to 20 branches, funded by Equal Heart’s Americorps grant and staffed by Americorps members, who served 17,910 lunches and 23,207 snacks.
In January 2017, Dease and Equal Heart began another Americorps-funded partnership in which ten part-time Americorps members serve after-school meals and lead STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) activities with children at five locations, while five full-time members work with adults on basic job skills and readiness.
Next on Dease’s administrative agenda: supporting and advocating for DPL staff who work with children. She says, “I’ve already begun inspiring them with stories of Siddie Joe Johnson,” the nationally influential children’s librarian who worked at DPL for nearly 30 years. She even has an initialism for it: WWSJD (What would Siddie Joe do)? “I hope it helps them recognize the legacy of [the] groundbreaking and community-minded work that came before them,” says Dease.