April 23, 2018

Renee Grassi | Movers & Shakers 2012 — Advocates

Story Time Star

Renee Grassi Movers & Shakers 2012


Youth Services Librarian
Deerfield Public Library, Deerfield, IL

MLS, Dominican University, River Forest, IL, 2009

North Suburban Special Education District (NSSED) 2010-11 Best Practice Initiative Award


Photo by Sears Portrait Studio, Irving Park, Chicago

What to do for an encore? That’s always a logical question for Renee Grassi, youth services librarian at the Deerfield Public Library (DPL) on Chicago’s North Shore. Over the last two years, Grassi developed and has led two innovative story programs for children with special needs. “Sensory Storytime” and “Read to Rover”—geared for kids with autism, problems with sensory processing, or simply difficulty sitting still in a library setting—are unqualified successes.

Everyone agrees special-needs children have been underserved by libraries around the nation; now Grassi is working diligently to share her ideas and experiences with other librarians around Illinois and beyond—mostly at their request.

“I am so proud,” Grassi said of the wildly popular initiatives, first developed from a $2000 grant from the Target Foundation. “I’m mostly proud to see it’s been so accepted in the community.” She’s also happy DPL’s youth services department can break free of some stereotypes. “We’re no longer seen just as the department in charge of shushing kids,” she jokes.

Sensory Storytime is a recurring four-part series for children ages four to eight. A dozen kids attend each session (along with any interested parents). The story time weaves in stories, songs, crafts, some basic literacy exercises, and playtime—but every activity proceeds along a rigidly structured setting that includes wearing name tags and reviewing a schedule.

Read to Rover was developed next, for older participants ages eight to 15. Therapy dogs are used to help provide sensory stimuli for the autistic and special-needs kids, and stories and activities usually employ some type of canine-related theme. The animals, of course, are trained to respond to the attention patiently. “Some kids just love laying next to the dogs listening to them breathe, or just brushing them,” Grassi says.

“Not surprising, Renee has received dozens of inquiries from fellow librarians about Sensory Storytime and Read to Rover,” says Meg Anthony, DPL head of youth services, adding that Grassi has reached “beyond the walls of the story time room” at the library to foster awareness of the special-needs programs.

In April, DPL received a “Best Practice Award” from the North Suburban Special Education District (NSSED) Association of Parents and Staff. It was the first time the NSSED honored a public library.

So what’s next? “We’re really looking to expand our service to schools,” Grassi says. DPL is working to develop outreach programs to bring Sensory Storytime into area schools looking to serve better autistic and other in-need kids.