In collegiate fiction-writing courses, a common piece of advice goes something like this: If you hit a block and can't figure out where the plot should go, put your characters in a moving vehicle.
The Whitehall Public Library has been doing something of the sort since 2002, when it launched its LEARN Bus program, transporting refugee residents from Whitehall Borough's Wallace (Prospect) Park area to the library for a monthly literacy initiative.
The program has done so well that the Office of Commonwealth Libraries honored Whitehall for it last year, and a video that the library's leaders screened this past Wednesday night tells its story—one that those involved in the program hope will provide a road map for other libraries serving diverse communities.
The LEARN, or Library Easy Access for Residents in Need, program currently serves between 50 and 80 refugees each month, according to Whitehall Library Director Paula Kelly. The ages of the refugees, who have been settling in Whitehall for the past several years, ranges from toddlers to seniors. In addition to books, attendees have access to computers, crafts and other activities.
"They genuinely love learning," Kelly said of the area's refugee community.
But if one were to have peeked into the LEARN Bus last January, that love wouldn't have been apparent.
Kelly, speaking before Wednesday's screening, sketched an overview of the program, starting with the influx of refugees that came to Whitehall in the 1990s. Seeing a community need, the library teamed up with Whitehall Councilwoman Linda J. Book and the Baldwin-Whitehall School District to develop the program in 2002. Several volunteers and donors contributed to LEARN, and it was off and running.
The program surely started off well, but attendance decreased every year—"sometimes drastically," Kelly said. Then, in January 2011, attendance hit rock bottom—zero. The following month was the same.
Kelly said that she knew folks would benefit from and enjoy the library's services, but waves of new residents had somehow fallen out of touch.
"They had no understanding of what the library's message meant to them on a personal level," Kelly said.
Around that time, Kelly and Whitehall's Adult Program Coordinator Denise Ignasky became certified to tutor English as a Second Language with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC), which holds weekly classes in the Prospect Park Family Center.
"We became tutors because we wanted to become tutors," Kelly said.
But in the process, they figured out how to reconnect with their community. And sure enough, in March 2011, 96 refugees boarded the LEARN Bus.
Library staff began revising the way that they ran the program.
One change that Kelly attributes to heavier book circulation, for example, is that her staff began preselecting and displaying books that might strike refugees' interests, rather than leaving them to browse the stacks.
"These folks are just starting to learn English," Kelly said. "I'm not going to lay the Dewey Decimal System on them."
Cindy Nelson, family literacy coordinator for the GPLC, said that a partnership with the Whitehall Library has been rewarding.
"We work really closely together," Nelson said, adding that she's seen methods that she promotes being used at the library. "I feel like a momma watching her kids at a birthday party."
Getting a wide range of cultures together—a LEARN Bus' riders might be from 15 different nations, originally—makes for an enlightening experience, Nelson said. English is typically the only language common among all of the riders, so communication skills are put to the test.
As Nelson notes in the video shown on Wednesday, the LEARN program benefits seniors most of all. Many, otherwise, might not often venture outside of their apartments, and they are not immersed in English the way that their grandchildren are at school.
"They just don't have the same opportunities," Nelson said.
Kelly said that the Whitehall Library hopes to make Wednesday's video available online in the near future, at which point other libraries might be inspired to create similar programs. UPDATE: Now available online.
At a Whitehall Council meeting later on Wednesday night, Councilman Philip Lahr, who attended the video screening, said that the inclusiveness of his community brought a tear to his eye.
"I'm so happy that I live in Whitehall," Lahr said, adding that he hopes that the video "goes national."
Check back with the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch later on Thursday for more notes from Wednesday night's council meeting.
Sign up for the daily Baldwin-Whitehall newsletter.