Teens learn skills, offer service, earn self-respect at Springdale Public Library

Libraries have long been a place to lead readers on the path to literacy, but one public library in Northwest Arkansas offers a program to help young adults learn responsibility. Jennifer Johnson with the Springdale Public Library says the program, back after a pandemic hiatus, “allows teens and preteens to take ownership of their work.”

“I don’t want the young adult volunteers to volunteer and not feel like they’re getting anything out of it. I want there to be some accountability and some actual literacy-based learning. So they start out doing shelving and cleaning and straightening. And then, as they show me that they’re really good at doing that, then they can work toward fun stuff, like helping us with programs doing displays,” says Johnson, who became the Young Adult Librarian in January. She adds that she wants the volunteers to be able to point to a library project and say, “I did that.” She hopes that time spent volunteering is an asset to the older participants as they apply to college or trade schools.

During the last school year, Johnson says they had 21-31 student volunteers, and right now they have 36 volunteers. In addition to helping keep the library orderly, they also assist with story times and other summer programs. Volunteering not only looks good on college applications, but some students need those volunteer hours to graduate, she says. Plus, it fosters learning.

“The volunteer program allowed me more insight into the importance of our library and the services it provides, and I was very happy to have the opportunity to contribute to my community in a meaningful way,” says Fiona Davis, an employee of the Springdale Public Library who worked as a volunteer in 2016 and 2020. “The importance of having access to both educational and recreational reading material, especially to homeschooling families like mine, cannot be overstated, and it meant a lot to me to be able to help make materials available to the public quickly, and to help maintain our standards of organization so that patrons were able to easily find items they were looking for.”

Davis says she was also able to build up skills that obviously became useful in her current job — and for life in general.

“My volunteer work helped to hone my attention to detail, as well as my goal setting and time-management skills. It also helped me to develop a service-oriented and problem-solving mindset that I have found very helpful in all aspects of my life,” she says.

The program also had long-lasting effects for her academic career as well.

“I put the volunteer hours I accumulated at the library toward the Congressional Award for Youth, which had an enormous positive impact on my life and opened many opportunities for me in both my personal and professional life. As a gold medal recipient, I was even able to receive a scholarship.”

Likewise, Ana Villafranca of Springdale says that her children, Andrea Cano-Villafranca and Eduardo Cano-Villafranca, are reaping the benefits of volunteering as well.

“They have been visiting the Springdale Public Library since they were little. They both love to read, and they have fond memories of their childhood there. Eduardo and Andrea have learned a lot by providing service to the community, especially to our library, which has given us so much,” Villafranca explains. The experience has been especially helpful to her daughter who was diagnosed with autism at age 11.

“Andrea feels like she’s at home every time she goes to the library. She knows the system of organization and storage of books. Throughout the activities she carries out as a volunteer, she has developed her soft skills, such as communication, decision-making, teamwork and organization,” the proud mom says. “These skills not only give her work experience, but also the feeling of knowing that she can do valuable things for others, the satisfaction of putting books back where someone else can find them ready to use, and helping to prepare the materials needed for the crafts that young children enjoy so much.”

“My favorite part of the library is the books, since I really enjoy reading them. Every time I read a book, I just seem to be immersed, learning more or just being taken to another world. I want other people to feel the same way when they pick up a book. That is the reason why I volunteer, because I know I will positively impact people’s lives somehow,” Andrea, 16, says. “I also enjoy volunteering with my brother, because he gets to earn the same experience I did while working in such an incredible place.”

“This experience has been very fun, and it has shown me more skills than I already know,” Eduardo, 13, says. “My favorite part of the library is the young adult section. It helps me more when I am with someone I know, so if I ever need help I can just ask my sibling.”

“Eduardo has just started as a volunteer, he is a bit shy, and facing his fears will help him grow as a person,” his mother says. “All the skills and concepts that Andrea has been developing there are now being planted in him, following the example of his sister, together with other teenagers, guided by Mrs. Johnson, as he takes his first steps in what could be called his first work experience.

“Our library is a multicultural place that welcomes anyone who needs its services with open arms, an inclusive place where people of all ethnicities, social status, or gender,” Villafranca says. “Everyone has a space, and my children learn from that not only from the explicit teaching, if not also from the implicit one, of the human quality, respect and attitude of service offered by the staff of our library.

“I hope that my children keep everything they learn from this experience, that they don’t forget how much the library has given them, that they are capable of making a difference in the world, one small step at a time,” Villafranca adds.

The volunteers will have a short break in August and then pick right back up in September. Johnson says she will start accepting applications for the volunteer program during the regular school year on Aug. 1.

    “The volunteers are essential for us in the summer, especially, because they help us a lot with our programs,” says Jennifer Johnson, Young Adult Librarian and Young Adult Volunteer Coordinator at the Springdale Public Library. “They are diligent, focused young persons. So they have been amazing in that regard.” (Courtesy photo)


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