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National grant enables Whitehall library to help refugees

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Whitehall Public Library Director Paula Kelly shows off the “literacy kits” the library will place in the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council’s ESL classrooms in the Whitehall Place housing complex, thanks to a library services and technology act grant from the state’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries received in 2012. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Whitehall Public Library Director Paula Kelly shows off the “literacy kits” the library will place in the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council’s ESL classrooms in the Whitehall Place housing complex, thanks to a library services and technology act grant from the state’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries received in 2012. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record

All they have to hear is “library” and “bus,” and some of the refugees gather, ready to head to the neighborhood hub.

No matter the program, from citizenship classes to family nights, the turnout always is strong.

“We've earned the trust of the community of refugees,” Whitehall Public Library director Paula Kelly said.

Programs are in place at Whitehall Public Library, geared to meet the needs of the multi-ethnic population living in the borough, mostly in the Whitehall Place housing complex. Grants have helped to fund the library programs, and resources continue to be added.

The latest will be a series of conversations, where participants will get to practice speaking English,

“Talking Time @ Your Library” for 25 English as Second Language speakers is scheduled for 12 weeks from March to May. The Whitehall library was awarded a $5,000 grant from the American Library Association's “American Dream Starts @ Your Library” initiative. This is the first national grant Whitehall Public Library has received.

“I feel good that we've been able to offer these programs with grant funds and without tapping into our operating budget,” Kelly said. “I'm very proud.”

Refugees — with a presence in the Whitehall area since the 1990s — come mostly from Bhutan and Burma, while others moved here from Burundi, Sudan, Turkey, Bosnia, Russia and Iraq, said Susie Backscheider, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council English as a Secondary Language teacher.

Many of those in the current influx of refugees at Whitehall Place, formerly the Prospect Park apartment complex, have been in the U.S. anywhere from a few months to five years, Backscheider said.

“We're always looking for ways to help them fit in in their new country,” Backscheider said.

Whitehall library began offering programs for the refugees in 2002, when council member Linda Book established the Library Easy Access for Residents in Need, or LEARN, bus program that provided transportation to the library.

That program saw a resurgence in recent years — thanks to work by the library staffers — and has many as 50 to 80 people using the bus to come to the library each month, said Kelly, who also volunteers as an ESL teacher in Whitehall Place.

Last year, the library received a $2,000 Library Services and Technology Act grant from the state Office of Commonwealth Libraries for the creation of 10 literacy kits. Those just were completed last week and will be distributed to GPLC classrooms this week, Kelly said. In September, the library also held its first citizenship classes, with 50 to 70 people attending.

This was the only time that a translator was hired for a program, Kelly said.

“I think they're very dedicated to becoming U.S. citizens. Their biggest challenge is English speaking and writing,” Kelly said.

Language can become a barrier.

The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of Whitehall's nearly 14,000 residents speak a foreign language at home.

Many of the refugees take English classes offered by GPLC at the apartment complex.

However, even if they understand the language, their oral communication skills often are lacking, the teachers said.

“They have all of this knowledge stored up in their brain, they just sort of struggle getting it out,” said Jen Hayes, an AmeriCorps member who teaches ESL classes through GPLC at Whitehall Place. “It's really teaching them the skills to converse in English.”

That is the goal of the English conversations planned for Whitehall Public Library, where the refugees will have the opportunity to talk freely and learn the appropriate things to say when and where.

“A lot of times they're shy and they don't know what's appropriate for the situation,” Hayes said. “A lot of times it's easier to say nothing, rather than say something and be afraid that you're going to be incorrect. We want them to have a safe place to make those mistakes and then be there to correct them and help them get it right.”

The English conversations, taught by Hayes and Backscheider, will have structured activities, but also will give the refugees practice talking in situations they might have in their daily life, such as going to the doctor, bank or pharmacist.

The program, also, is geared to give the refugees confidence in speaking English.

“In all areas of life, it's really important,” Backscheider said. “Everything is completely different than what they're used to.”

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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