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Educating Homeless Youth in the Bronx

by on January 6, 2017

For the last eight years, Colbert Nembhard has volunteered his time reading to homeless children at the Crotona Inn homeless shelter in the Bronx. He believes in early literacy intervention and strives to cultivate a love of reading in children while they are young. When Nembhard is not providing programming at the Crotona Inn homeless shelter, he manages the Morrisania Branch Library of the New York Public Library. Andrew Hart interviewed Nembhard via email on December 8, 2016.

Public Libraries: What inspired you to begin reading to homeless children at the Crotona Inn homeless shelter?

Colbert Nembhard: My journey with the Crotona Inn homeless shelter began eight years ago. I received a phone call from my outreach department asking me if I could go to the Crotona Inn shelter and do outreach. When I got there, I saw that they had a lot of young ones in the childcare center raging from about 8 months to 3 years old. I believe that literacy starts at an early age; therefore, I decided to take the library to the shelter. Studies have shown that by the time a child reaches the age of four, 90 percent of the brain is already developed. I wanted to make sure I foster literacy in those children at an early age. Often children in the shelters are forgotten and are not involved in the early literacy experience. With me going into the shelter, reading stories, doing sing-along, finger-plays, and conducting family literacy workshops, helps to foster literacy.

PL: What kinds of changes have you noticed in the children who attend your reading sessions?

CN: I visit the shelter on a weekly basis and I do notice that children participate more during story time. Children will often point to the books that they would like me to read to them. Some of them are able to imitate sound, identify images, and numbers. And the older ones can say their ABCs.

PL: What skills do you utilize as a librarian during your programs?

CN: During my programs, I do like to do lots of songs and finger-plays. I also use a lot of puppetry. I also work with them in identifying their colors, letters, and numbers. I sometimes incorporate musical instruments.

PL: What kind of hurdles have you experienced through the years?

CN: One of the biggest hurdles is to get parents of the shelter to take their child or children to the library to take advantage of our free programs and services.

Photo Courtesy of Ayofemi Kirby, New York Public Library

Photo Courtesy of Ayofemi Kirby, New York Public Library

PL: Do you train others to read to children? If so, what advice do you give them as they are being trained?

CN: I have trained others to read to children. In reading to the young, I remind them that their attention span is very small so don’t read books that are lengthy. Choose books that will be appealing to the children-books that have colorful illustrations and books that are interactive. Children love lots of interactions.  Also, kids love pop-up books. I have also told others to get the children involved in your lift-the-flap books by having them participate in opening the flaps.

PL: Tell us a little about the impact that your programs have on you personally.

CN: Going to the shelters for these many years and conducting programs with these children has left an indelible mark on my life. Knowing that I am able to help develop their pre-literacy skills which will prepare them to become successful readers at an early age, has given me a sense of accomplishment.

PL: What do parents think of your reading services?

CN: Parents are grateful that someone takes the time out to read and interact with their children. They are grateful that their children are included and part of this learning initiative. Parents think that this is an awesome service.

PL: What is one thing you would tell other librarians wanting to start a similar program in their community?

CN: I would say to that librarian, go for it because he or she could make a big difference in the life of a child. I would also say it is a rewarding experience.


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