At the Daybreak homeless center in Macon, Ga., up to 125 individuals come through each day to build friendships, eat a hot meal, take a shower, wash their clothes, and now, for the opportunity to learn computer literacy skills through the Middle Georgia Regional Library’s Libraries Without Walls initiative, as they rebuild their lives.
“Often a series of life events, one after the other, leads to people becoming homeless,” said Sister Theresa Sullivan, program director at Daybreak. “We help them to step-by-step regain their footing and find a job and a permanent home. Learning computer skills and reading books open our clients’ minds to dream of possibilities beyond today.”
Community Engagement Coordinator Saul Hernandez visits twice a month. He greets individuals in Daybreak’s common area, which holds a mix of tables, chairs, bookshelves and a kitchen, and offers people one-on-one, personalized training sessions.
“Computers can be very intimidating to those we serve, but Saul has a gift for inviting people in and meeting them where they are,” said Sullivan. “He treats people with dignity, and as a result, our partnership is showing impact.”
Stan Jones, 65, is a well-spoken individual whose kindness shows immediately on his face and in his voice. After a lifetime of work including most recently as a banquet steward, he became homeless after job loss and ongoing health issues.
“What Saul taught me has led to tangible benefits in my life,” said Jones. “He showed me how to better research credible resources on the internet. For example, I applied for a medication discount card online, so I now can afford medicine to address my health.”
Two other individuals have found employment thanks to the computer skills they gained at his computer, job search and resume workshops.
“This type of outreach helps our libraries become an authentic part of the community and develop a deeper connection to the people we want to serve,” said Jennifer Lautzenheiser, director of the Middle Georgia Regional Library System. “Our mission is to connect people to information they need to improve their lives, and our traveling branch, Library Without Walls, really embodies the difference we hope to make in people’s lives.”
Other public libraries are finding creative ways to get out into the community as well. Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System has launched a library bike, and Outreach Librarian Oscar Gittemeir takes the motorized bicycle to places where transportation is a barrier for residents, including barbershops, area parks and senior centers.
“We dust off people’s notions of what a library is,” said Gittemeir. “I bring a fun activity to catch their attention, and when they leave our setup, they have a library card and our apps on their mobile device!”
The key to outreach success is to identify what is popular or needed in a community.
The Waycross-Ware County Public Library pursues their mission as a community center through OkeCon, an annual event that celebrates geek culture.
OkeCon, like commercial fan conventions, includes many activities happening at the same time: Lego, kids’ crafts, an art contest, cosplay contest, virtual reality gaming, maker activities, Minecraft, and even discussion panels. The library uses OkeCon as an opportunity to showcase its manga, comic book, anime, and board game collections as well as resources like computers, virtual reality and its 3-D printer.
“There are people who have lived here their whole lives and never knew there were others like them, who shared their interests, right here in south Georgia,” said Kathleen McClure, librarian with the Okefenokee Regional Library, which manages the event. “OkeCon is an opportunity for the library to help these people connect and form a community.”
Now in its third year, OkeCon recently had 550 attendees. Thirteen staff members and over 30 volunteers helped run the event.
“The event helps draw people into the library,” said Macie Britt, president of the Anime Culture Club in Waycross. “It helps you meet new people and see what your community has to offer.”
These outreach activities across Georgia’s libraries reach potential patrons who otherwise may not utilize their services, and they also help libraries meet the needs of people who are unserved or underserved.
For Stan Jones back at the Daybreak shelter, the library has removed obstacles as he betters his health and engages in lifelong learning.
“We have the opportunity to make a key difference in people’s lives by removing barriers and sharing information,” said Saul Hernandez. “This is what all libraries should strive to do.”