Director, Long Branch Free Public Library, NJ
MLIS, Rutgers University, 2010
New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) Librarian of the Year, 2016
Photo by Andrea Phox Photography
[Com]passion To Serve
“My path to librarianship was by no means traditional,” says Tonya Garcia, whose story is a testament to her dedication to her community. A high school dropout,she married young and was a full-time mother. “I knew poverty,” she says, “I knew what it was like to search for quarters to pay for a pack of diapers to last before the next paycheck.” Seeing similar needs all around her, she responded using what she had: four sons and a kitchen table. “Team Jump Off [a nonprofit she founded to provide a safe haven for kids] was run directly out of our home and encouraged teens to take accountability for their future,” says Garcia. Weekly meetings helped 30 young adults stay motivated and focus on their lives rather than on the streets.
When financial difficulties required Garcia to go back to work, she turned to the local library in Long Branch—her “favorite place to think”—and saw a Help Wanted sign. Within months of starting part-time in 2004, Garcia was encouraged by then-director Ingrid Bruck to get her MLS. Already overloaded with family, job, and Team Jump Off, she resisted until Bruck sent her to a three-day Train the Trainer session. “I came away…knowing that I wanted to do what they were doing,” she says.
A two-time recipient of the Laura Bush 21st Century Diversity Recruitment Scholarship, Garcia earned her BA and MLIS and rose through the Long Branch library ranks to become director in 2013.
Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, raves, “[Tonya] is committed to…developing services of and for her community because coupled with her compassion is a drive for excellence and innovation.”
Garcia points to three programs she believes have had the most impact: the “Get Back to Work” job-seeker support initiative (ten years running in 2017); the Fresh Start Re-Entry Program, helping previously incarcerated citizens reintegrate into the community; and 2016’s barbershop initiative, Fade to Books, supporting barbers who encourage in-the-chair reading. All three won statewide acclaim and grants to expand.
Another new program, Community Connects, is a social work initiative for on-site support from 12 to 15 community agencies to help residents with health care, housing, and other necessary services. In conjunction with Monmouth University’s School of Social Work, there is also a social work intern at the library. According to Tumulty, Garcia is the first New Jersey library director to bring a social worker into the library, and her program is now a state model.