Homeless in the Library: Librarians Give Back

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I’m not one of those people that sits at the table, waits my turn to say what I’m thankful for, and then goes and tramples people at the local Wal-Mart. I have dinner with my family, I spend time with them, and then I pass out from the sheer amount of turkey I’ve just eaten. I don’t live near my family, so Thanksgiving presents me an opportunity to bond and engage with them. I realize, though, that a lot of people don’t have that chance. New York Times had really perfect timing when they posted this article, titled ‘A Bronx Librarian Keen on Teaching Homeless Children a Lasting Love of Books’. It’s one of those articles that really gives you some perspective, especially on those lives that differ so radically from mine.

This article was amazing, and it reaffirmed every strong feeling I have for librarianship. It reports on the efforts of Colbert Nembhard, a branch manager for the New York Public Library. Along with working at his library branch, Nembhard also does homeless outreach, specifically to homeless children. I still have a hard time believing that we even have homeless children in the United State, so this article was both shocking and inspiring for me. In his outreach work, Nembhard has two goals: to encourage literacy to make lifelong readers out of homeless children, and to get homeless parents (and their children) signed up for NYPL library cards. He has been successful at both – the children are excited to see him, they recognize him, and they can’t wait for song and storytime. In a world that has to be bleak for these children, Colbert Nembhard is like a ray of fresh sunlight.

The article got me thinking about my own students – many of them (well over half) are experiencing financial hardships at home – and all that I do to encourage and support them. While my library, like many others, is currently struggling with budget issues, my top priority is to encourage literacy in my students, as well as a love for libraries. I do a lot of story times and book talks, as well as placing posters and flyers all over the library introducing them to new titles and/or genres. I try my best to guide my students to books that they will love, because I know all it takes is one good book to hook them. This article made me think of doing more, though.

While scouring the interwebs, I found a blog post called ‘The Giving Project’ – in this post, the author detailed her plans to teach her students about generosity and kindness. Along with many activities, she also provided a list of books that teach these positive concepts. Here are some of my favorites:




A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Philip C. Stead

Amos McGee loves his job as a zookeeper. But when he is too sick to show up for work, his friends take his recovery into their own ‘hands’.




Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen
DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan

A young boy visits his uncle to help him at the soup kitchen for the day. He learns about how food is donated and how needy people are treated as valued guests.




A Castle on Viola Street
DyAnne DiSalvo

Andy lives in a run-down apartment, but doesn’t know any better. Until he meets a group of volunteers who fix up abandoned homes.



Paired with some activities, stories like these could be prove very powerful if taught as a unit. Young students will respond to themes of generosity and community.

For middle and high schools, programming might be just as effective. While working in a high school library the other day, I noticed ‘the giving tree’ (not to be mistaken for the popular Shel Silverstein book), an actual tree on which gift request were placed. Through volunteering, students could pick a request and fill it for a needy family or child. Along that same thread, I think it would be an excellent idea for teacher librarians to gather a group of student volunteers to do readings at public libraries, homeless shelters, and/or soup kitchens. It’s important to remember that it isn’t just kids who enjoy being read to. Students who showed up at a soup kitchen to read parts of popular stories or books would most certainly be appreciated. Teaching students how to be kind and generous does not have to stop just because they are nearing adulthood.

Consistently enforcing these ideals throughout a students’ education would not only allow them to embrace these concepts, but would also make them acquainted with their communities and contributing to them.




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