When René Bue, Programming and Outreach Coordinator, and Laurie Bartz, Young Adult Librarian, of the Hedberg Public Library (HPL) in Janesville took over a reading program with the Youth Services Center (YSC) in August 2013, they had one objective: to make sure the kids were better off when they left the YSC than when they came. As they embark on their third year, it’s clear that they have achieved that objective – and so much more.
The youth at the YSC are split into two areas: the shelter side houses youth who may have had a minor scrape with law enforcement, but are considered at risk for future issues. Others are in the area for protective purposes. Laurie spends most of her time during visits to the YSC sharing reading materials with students on the shelter side of the facility. Shelter area youth have also been allowed to take field trips as a group to attend programs at the library.
René visits the secure side of the center which houses teenagers who have committed various offenses and are serving time (often around 6 months to a year). Youth in both the shelter and secure areas have free time each day, so the hope is to provide positive reading materials to help them enjoy reading, to supplement their studies and gain skills as they fill their time.
Laurie and René visit the center twice each month. It all starts with them talking with the youth, asking them about their interests, favorite topics and authors. “We’ve been amazed at their knowledge about many subjects,” said René. “They’re interested in everything from fishing and sports, to music, entrepreneurship and anger management – and much more. Then we suggest certain books they might like to read.”
Originally the youth were allowed to check out only one book at a time, but the two Hedberg staff worked with the administration to change the policy to allow them to check out as many as six books at a time. “We only lend out hardcover and paperback books,” Bue continues. “We wanted to focus on positive opportunities, of getting the kids to read more, and love what they are reading. We used to also bring magazines and music CDs but we encountered more problems with those items not getting returned for a variety of reasons.”
In part due to the occasional issue of not getting materials back, they also developed a process to make sure the books aren’t mixed up with the items that are in the center’s library. “Sometimes you just need to simplify things,” said Laurie. HPL bookmarks with names and due dates are kept in all books checked out by students. “We also implemented a blue dot system to identify those books from the center’s library that have been donated by HPL.”
René loves going to the center and talking with the kids. “Some of them have had some amazing life experiences, and they want to learn more about themselves. Sometimes I have resorted to a little trickery when they make requests for graphic novels. I suggest things like graphic novel versions of classics like The Little Prince. Afterwards, when I return and they tell me that they liked the story, I tell them that it was originally a novel. They almost always want to read that too. Often they are books they would never have selected on their own, yet they opened their eyes to something new. It might seem a bit sneaky, but it just might turn these young people into lifelong readers of many different kinds of books.”
Laurie said encouraging lifelong reading is working. “Several of the youth who leave the center begin coming to the public library. Some have even volunteered at the library. It’s really inspiring. This is a community issue, and we need to address it in many different ways.”
“We would like to do more programming with the youth,” said Laurie. “During the school breaks, we offer special programs like making holiday ornaments or decorating cookies.” Last year, their beautiful art was displayed in the library. René and Laurie agree that the kids are very talented. “We consider ourselves a resource to help them find a way toward a better life once they leave the center. It’s as therapeutic for us as it is for them.”
More than that, René hopes that each and every child sees themselves as a valued member of the greater Janesville community. “Reading and finding resources that can help them in the future is a positive way to make an impact on their lives.”
In the words of the author Sidney Sheldon, “Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life.” Well said, Sidney. Well said.