May 12, 2018

Chera Kowalski | Movers & Shakers 2018 – Advocates

Chera Kowalski


Adult/Teen Librarian, Free Library of Philadelphia


MLIS, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009


@chera_k on Twitter

Photo by Swiger Photography



For decades, the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington has been notorious for entrenched poverty, a high crime rate, and rampant opioid addiction. It’s the epicenter of an epidemic of fatal overdoses in a city with high rates of such deaths. It’s also home to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s (FLP) century-old McPherson Square Branch, situated in a small park—nicknamed Needle Park for the addicts who routinely inject drugs there.

That’s where McPherson adult/teen librarian Chera Kowalski has stepped in to save lives. In 2017 alone, she revived six people from opioid overdose by giving the nasal spray drug Narcan, which reverses the unconsciousness and repressed respiratory function that accompanies overdose.

“Chera has the ability to switch from adult/teen librarian to lifesaver in a nanosecond,” says nominator Marion Parkinson, an FLP administrative librarian.

Kowalski didn’t wind up at McPherson by accident. When she interviewed at FLP in 2013, she knew its reputation—and specifically requested to be placed there. She had personal history with addiction via her mother and father. “I instantly thought of my experiences growing up with parents struggling with substance use disorder, something that brought heartbreak and chaos,” she says. “But at the same time, my parents showed love and strength, both eventually maintaining long-term recovery from opioid use.”

After witnessing a patron nearly die in the library in June 2016, Kowalski asked FLP administration for librarians to receive training in overdose reversal from Prevention Point, a neighborhood nonprofit that provides harm reduction services. Prevention Point gave FLP staff two workshops on opioids and substance abuse disorder later that year. In February 2017, 26 library staff—librarians, librarian assistants, and guards—went through overdose reversal training.

Kowalski hasn’t administered the drug since June 2017; after her lifesaving actions drew national media attention, the police stepped up their presence in the park. But the training continues. “In the past six months, more library staff have received training, and we have hosted public trainings at the library as well,” Kowalski says.

The library now stocks opioid overdose rescue kits, each one contained in a zippered pouch. “[They’re] a lifesaving tool, in the same category as fire extinguishers, CPR, and AEDs [automated external defibrillators],” says Kowalski.

“Chera can leave an Uno game with two children to go save a life and then come back to finish the Uno game,” says Parkinson. “She is nonchalant about her lifesaving actions and the attention she gives to the opioid crisis. In Chera’s opinion, a librarian’s job is to meet the needs of her community, and her community just happens to need a Narcan-wielding librarian.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Please be respectful to the community and to this amazing librarian who has repeatedly advocated for folks who live there. Needle park is a derogatory name given to this community by folks who do not comprehend the disparity these people face every day. Many many many people have to live amongst this chaos where people travel from the suburbs and other states to acquire herioin.

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