"We are making an impact for children and families today that will strengthen the community for generations to come."
In 2001 the James V. Brown Library located in Williamsport became Pennsylvania’s first Family Place Library. As the library developed its leadership role in the early childhood community, partnerships developed. The library is a vital member of the Lycoming County Community Engagement Group and works with the organizations and agencies to continually look for new and better ways to provide families access to the myriad of services and programs available throughout the community.
Beth Smith, Family Place Coordinator and Assistant Director, Jeffrey Swope both acknowledge the need for and value of building strong community collaborations. "The City of Williamsport is home to over 30,000 residents. Of those residents nearly 8,900 of them are under the age of 18. 21.5% of the households and 24% of the children in the city live in poverty," says Swope. "There are many families in need and the library works closely with its partners to reach out to promote the wide range of services available through both the library and its partner organizations."
Partnerships began early in the library's Family Place history and have strengthened over time. One successful collaboration involves Early Intervention, North Central Sight Services, BLaST IU 17 (a support organization for public school districts in Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan and Tioga Counties), and the PA Department of Health. Several times each year, early intervention specialists come to the library on scheduled dates to do free and confidential developmental, hearing and vision screenings. All results are discussed after the screenings are finished, and if necessary children are referred to the appropriate community professional. The library provides the perfect non-threatening environment for screenings of this kind.
With the recent recall of toys containing lead paint, older homes that may have remnants of lead paint and parents who have hobbies such as hunting and fishing, children may be found to have high levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain causing learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and speech, language and behavior problems. This is a particular problem in Lycoming County where more than 80% of homes may have lead paint, yet only 11% of children are tested.
The James V. Brown Library and the PA Department of Health teamed up to bring free lead testing to the Williamsport area. These tests proved life changing for the Emekekwue family. Vanessa Emekekwue, mother of a three year old and 18-month-old twins, discovered that all three of her children had high lead levels. Because of this, they had their home tested and found that it was uninhabitable. The family made a decision to move. “I’m so thankful to the James V. Brown Library and the PA Department of Health. Without them we would still be living in an unsafe home.” says Vanessa Emekekwue.
This collaboration earned the James V. Brown Library one of its seven Pennsylvania Library Association Best Practices Awards. “We are pleased to be recognized as an integral part of the early childhood continuum in our community,” says Swope, “We provide information that comes in many forms including referrals to local agencies and services, through screenings, and through the traditional services provided by libraries. We work to be the "hub" for this information and strive to have families come to us first.”
The library also serves families through five LINK rural library outlets, a bookmobile, and through the only Storymobile in the State. With over 40 stops on a two week cycle including daycares and preschools, the Storymobile reaches out to more preschool children than any other one program in a given year.
But all of this has not taken the focus off of the library's internal programming and services. The youth services staff has spent time evaluating and expanding the current programs to create a continuum of programming that serves the needs of families throughout the pre-school years. All program content is based on developmentally appropriate practice and benchmarked to the PA State Standards for Early Learning. "We don't start planning storytimes based on a theme and go from there anymore." Says Swope, "We first determine what we want to achieve in the program and then build the program around that."
The library employs four full-time youth services staff members and averages about 1,000 programs per year making about 20,000 parent and child contacts. Almost all programming is run on a five-week cycle to ensure that staff has time get to know families and observe their development.
The commitment to the Family Place philosophy and the ongoing training of new staff members allowed all programs and services to be thoughtful and intentional, focusing on the depth and breadth of services provided. This commitment to children and families paid off in January of 2009 when the James V. Brown Library opened the 27,000 square foot Kathryn Siegel Welch Children’s Wing with main entrance signage that reads, “Welch Family Place.”
"The community showed us that what we were doing was important to them,” says Swope, "We set a goal of raising $4.5 million for the project and raised $6.5 million in a community that certainly has economic challenges."
The James V. Brown Library was clear about its mission in building the children's wing: to meet the needs of children and families in the area. To do this, the library designed a new facility that was based on implementing the best practices in early learning programs, materials, and services. The design of the wing incorporates flexible spaces that can be easily modified for various programs and creates attractive and comfortable spaces for children and families. As an inviting interactive learning environment, the building was tailored to the developmental and educational needs of young children.
The first floor of the new wing is dedicated to parents and children from birth to 7 years old. Themed “The Amazing Wilds,” the first floor design takes into account the needs of both parents and children. There is a family place seating area, art activity center, four programming rooms that can be opened into larger spaces, a small music station, a writing station, and more. The Family Place space is warm and welcoming for both parents and children.
The space also features AWE Early Literacy Stations, and a 40,000 item youth and family collection that has an annual circulation of 320,000 items. The “A-mazing” maze, located in the center the room, is the showcase of the first floor. With fun facts, bright images, and interactive activities, the maze engages children and encourages them to explore the world around them.
Family Place has positioned the library as a destination point in the community. "These spaces go well beyond the traditional idea of housing books," says Swope, "They are learning environments that allow children to explore and discover in a setting that encourages all forms of learning and actively engages these young minds."
From the development of partnerships, to the creation of services, programs and resources, to the construction of a unique building, the library has embraced the concepts of Family Place and made them work for the community they serve.
"Thoughtful and Intentional are the key words here," says Swope. "By knowing what we do, why we do it, and being able to explain that to our partners and our community, the library has really become 'the family place' for the residents of our community. We are making an impact for children and families today that will strengthen the community for generations to come."