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Understanding the Community as a Librarian and a Neighbor

by on April 3, 2020

by Heidi Eckerson, Librarian, Newfield (NY) Public Library

As I write this, I realize that libraries are closed and programming in person has ceased. Yet the creative and selfless professionals in this field are finding ways to serve their communities.  I am so grateful and proud to be part of this profession. 

Scheduling any event, let alone an outside event for early March in upstate New York, can be dicey. With temperatures reaching nearly 70 degrees the day before, rain was more likely than snow.  What we didn’t expect was COVID-19 to escalate so quickly.  Had it been held a few days later, our “Community Day,” which featured a mobile food pantry and the participation of a dozen local health and service organizations, would have been cancelled. By March 13, the pandemic took center stage in our community and others across the country. 

After writing several grants in my new position as librarian at the Newfield Public Library, I can easily reel off data points used to paint a picture of the community where I live and work. However, some things are unquantifiable.

In late 2019 our library partnered with the Tompkins County Human Services Coalition to host several health care sign-up sessions as part of the PLA’s Libraries Connecting You to Coverage initiative.  That’s how I met JD, a health care navigator who also happened to be a Newfield native. As the sessions wound down, we discussed working together in the future. He shared some observations from his outreach work in the community, suggesting an event with a variety of free or low-cost programs on health and wellness, home repair, and job training. He also felt there was a need for a fresh food truck, especially in the winter months. So we began to plan “Community Day.”

The local food pantry coordinator, an avid library user herself, was key in facilitating a conversation with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. Several emails and six weeks later many hands pulled the event together. The library director worked with the local bank whose parking lot would be the truck’s staging ground. The pantry coordinator rallied the required volunteers. JD reached out to his nonprofit connections to develop a list of attendees. National Honor Society students from our local high school were ready to load and carry bags and boxes for folks. The availability of the Mobile Food Pantry drove our scheduling. 

Soon we were fielding calls from organizations asking to participate. While excited by the organic growth, I became concerned that we’d have more tables than folks attending to learn about opportunities or to stock their kitchens. This was the moment access took on new meaning and urgency for me. My privilege had blinded me to certain realities experienced by folks we were hoping to reach. Promotion wasn’t enough; we had to consider how those who might want to participate could do so. How could we make sure that the tenants of the senior living apartments could attend?  How could we ensure that the folks living at Second Wind Cottages, a seven-acre safe setting for homeless men, were invited? We made phone calls to Second Wind Cottages, to the Newfield Garden Apartments and to Gadabout, a local transportation company for seniors. And then we made connections.

Marketing was minimal. Posters were made using Canva software and they were printed and posted in-house and shared on social media channels as well as around town at the bank, convenience store, churches, and laundromat. And word of mouth is extremely effective in a small town. Since there were two local pantry nights before the Mobile event, staff spread the word. As a freelancer for a county newspaper I wrote an article about our local food pantry and timed its publication to coincide with the event. The article reached many within our community and helped to generate buzz around the event.

Walking to work that morning I saw people lining up on the sidewalk in front of the bank. At the end of the four hour event we were thrilled with our turnout: 70 families received food, and 15 organizations had over 50 patrons visit them. Some of these folks were new faces at the library.  We also went through most of the soup we served up for Free Lunch at the Library. I collected materials to create a new Local Resources area and have already started conversations about  future programming collaborations. 

Food insecurity, a concern faced by many communities, has intensified in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some folks who volunteered were also folks who went through the line. Our twice monthly food pantry has already seen an increased interest.

There are many tools to assess community needs. However, in a data-driven world it can be easy to forget that data is not information. It only tells part of the story.  The rich stories of a community are told by its members, not numbers.  Libraries must continue to partner with their neighbors to understand these needs and work together to meet them.