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Whitehall library staff help refugees board LEARN bus

| Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011

Use of Whitehall Public Library's LEARN bus had declined last year to the point that, at times, no one was taking advantage of the program geared to assist refugees in getting to a community hub.

New residents, mostly from Bhutan and Nepal, had moved into the Whitehall Place housing complex, but were not taking advantage of library programming like others had in the past.

So, Whitehall Public Library Director Paula Kelly and Adult Program Coordinator Denise Ignasky decided to visit the housing complex and make a connection. And what they found was astonishing.

"They had no idea what a library was all about," Ignasky said.

The library staffers took it upon themselves to become English as Second Language tutors at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council's Whitehall Place hub and began teaching residents the definition of a library and encouraging them to visit.

The next time a Library Easy Access for Residents in Need, or LEARN, bus visited Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park, to transport residents to the library," more than 90 people lined up awaiting the program, Ignasky said.

"It was just amazing," she said.

Staffers at Whitehall Public Library always are adapting to ensure the LEARN bus meets the needs of residents, said borough Council President Linda Book, who initiated the program in 2002.

"Everyone's working together and finding ways to keep it moving forward," Book said. "They've form-fitted their needs."

Making a difference

It is that effort, Book said, that has led the program to receive numerous awards, including the 2011 Marietta Y. King and Alberta Walden Still Diversity Award for Public Library Service to Older Adults in a Diverse Community through the Innovative Services for an Aging Population Advisory Community, sponsored by the Office of Commonwealth Libraries.

The LEARN bus is funded each year through a donation from the Friends of Whitehall Public Library. In 2004, the program won the Pennsylvania Best Practices for Early Education from the Pennsylvania Libraries Association, Book said.

The goal of the LEARN bus is to reach out to old and young alike, Ignasky said.

After the bus transports the mostly refugee residents from Whitehall Place to the library, the area becomes a destination dedicated to meeting their needs, Ignasky said.

"It's turned into a little community center for that 90 minutes each month," she said. "This has become a night out for the whole family."

There are special children's programs set up, the computers are blocked off for their use, and often the refugees spend this time watching videos on YouTube from their home countries, Ignasky said.

The older adults, too, have their place, with crafting areas and selections of ESL materials displayed along tables throughout the library.

Since Kelly and Ignasky became ESL tutors, attendance on the LEARN bus has been between 50 and 90 people, they said.

"Part of it is the comfort that they felt with us," Ignasky said.

If it weren't for that effort, the program might not exist today, Kelly said.

"There was a disconnect there," she said. "If we hadn't done that, we would have had to cancel the LEARN bus."

Teaching the residents about a library's purpose took several weeks, Ignasky said.

The library staffers used bingo and pictures to teach lessons about what a library stands for, they said.

"We hauled boxes and boxes of stuff over there," Kelly said.

And they told their students to "spread the word" about the programs they offer, they said.

"We made sure they took that message home and boy did they listen," Kelly said.

The program is one that would be useful in other communities with large refugee populations, Book said.

And library staffers hope to share their idea with others through a documentary they are filming on the program, they said.

Public input sought on plan for library

Public comment is being sought as Whitehall Public Library officials work to develop a strategic plan.

Councilwoman Kathy DePuy, council's liaison to the library, reported last week that library officials are evaluating emerging technologies and devices; optimal use of the library's space; educational and community partnership opportunities; and new and creative patron experiences.

Library officials are seeking input from borough council, patrons, educators, the business community and social services representatives for the strategic plan, DePuy said. The library can be reached at 412-882-6622 or .

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