Whitehall library recognized for its community programs
By Stephanie Hacke
Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Senior citizens gather in the center created just for them to reminisce about World War II or to enjoy a game of bunko with friends.
Youngsters enjoy toys, books and music in the children's area, deemed a Family Place Library that promotes literacy for Whitehall's youngest residents.
Refugees from Nepal, Bhutan and Iraq board a school bus that transports them from their homes to the library several miles away where interactive programs await them.
Meeting the needs of an ever-changing community and finding a way to connect with the residents in a town with both a large elderly and multi-ethnic resettled refugee population is important for leaders of the Whitehall Public Library, they say. And they've found a way to be successful in their endeavors.
“I think it's every library's main focus,” Whitehall library director Paula Kelly said. “Being a very well-supported library, we're able to do a lot of exciting things, because we can.”
Celebrating successes at the Whitehall Public Library — from receiving $20,000 in local, state and federal grants to reinventing programs for refugees that draw in the masses and having a video of their programs appear on a blog on the American Library Association's website — have been frequent during recent years.
The latest success for the 50-year-old Whitehall Public Library came last month when the library received the inaugural Maggie Forbes Community Engagement Award, which recognizes a library in Allegheny County for its community outreach.
The award, underwritten by The Jack Buncher Foundation, came with a $5,000 prize to be used to further community engagement. Whitehall library leaders are considering using the funds for citizenship classes, Kelly said.
Whitehall library was selected from four proposals, said Allegheny County Library Association executive director Marilyn Jenkins, whose executive committee selected the winner. The Whitehall library stood out for several reasons, Jenkins said.
“There was such a creative approach to providing services to their residents,” she said.
Whitehall library leaders adapt to the needs of the community, even sending representatives into the town to learn more about the residents, Jenkins said.
Library leaders base their programs on the community demographics, Kelly said.
“You have to or you're not going to be around for long,” Kelly said. “Communities are very fluid things.”
Refugees began living in the Whitehall area in the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of the borough's nearly 14,000 residents speak a foreign language at home.
Whitehall library began offering programs for refugees in 2002, when council member Linda Book established the Library Easy Access for Residents in Need, or LEARN, bus program.
After sending librarians into the community to learn about the refugees needs, the program saw a resurgence in recent years and now has as many as 80 people using the bus each month to come to the library.
“The foundation was laid with that,” Kelly said.
A video about the program has been showcased nationally, said Kelly, who is presenting “The Bus Stops Here” at the Pennsylvania Library Association annual conference in October.
“It's thinking outside the box,” Kelly said. “It's having an understanding of the people in your community. Don't be afraid to change the way your library looks.”
Other parts of the library, like the Second Chapter Cafe, where senior citizens gather on a daily basis to socialize, have become focal points in the Whitehall community.
“It's really made a difference in people's lives,” Kelly said.
Partnering with other organizations in the community, including local schools, senior centers and refugee support organizations, have added to the success of the library, said Whitehall Public Library board of director president Cris Brady.
“It's really a partnership with the community,” Brady said. “We don't stand alone. Organizations and people work with us.”
Borough leaders, too, show great support for the library, contributing $337,000 this year through borough funds to finance operational costs.
But it mainly is the staff and their drive to make better connections with the community that makes Whitehall library and its programs a success, Brady said.
“(Kelly) has her finger on the pulse of the community, so to speak,” Brady said. “If there's a need in the community — young, old, senior citizen, the refugees — she looks at, ‘What can we do to meet their needs?'”
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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