Kids find summertime haven in libraries, parents find day care
Librarians are very special people. Instead of complaining about children left there all day, librarians say, "We like to see our library used."
The library is where the children are never turned away.
By Lolly Bowean
It was a warm and sunny day outside, but Xavier Parker, 10, was deep into a computer game at Thurgood Marshall Public Library when his father walked in and told the boy he was about to go to a store.
"Stay in here," Xavier's father, Jimmy Giles, said, leaving the boy in charge of his 6- and 8-year-old brothers. "Don't go anywhere until I come back and get you."
Giles is a single father and he doesn't like his boys roaming their Englewood neighborhood or playing outside because it's not safe, he said. So nearly every day the boys walk to the library and sometimes stay there for hours.
"They love it here," he said. "They don't want to leave."
In Chicago neighborhoods like Austin and Englewood and suburban communities such as Chicago Heights and Zion, many libraries serve as makeshift summer camps. They're a place where parents with limited means leave their kids for part of the day, and where children escape the streets.
Want to learn more about summer library programs? Tribune reporter Lolly Bowean answers questions about them at Trib Nation. Many of these children spend the day at the library without the guidance of a parent, said Susan Neuman, professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who is writing a book on public libraries and education. As a result, some librarians have developed informal regimens and systems for managing the daily influx of unsupervised kids.
Some organize learning activities and develop curricula. Others forgive late fees and extend the amount of time children can stay on the computer. In one case, the librarian keeps bread, peanut butter and jelly on hand so he can share his lunch with children who say they are hungry.
"Librarians -- they are the hidden stars of our communities," Neuman said. "Librarians act as substitute mother teachers. They have taken it upon themselves to fill this role. They are doing it and doing it well, even if it is not something they wanted to do."
The phenomenon is not new, but in this economy, Neuman said a larger number of parents will rely on the library this summer in place of camp for their kids. The increase is expected even as some libraries struggle with reduced hours and fewer staff, she said.
At the south suburban Chicago Heights library, Norma Rubio gathers names and phone numbers of the children and gets them library cards. She gives them extra time on the computers and asks the older children to help by clearing tables and organizing books.
Rubio considers it her responsibility to look after the children left alone there. After all, she was once a bored kid growing up in Chicago Heights, she said. The library was such a refuge for her that she was eventually offered a job there.
"Where else will they go?" said Rubio, head of the children's department. "Mom is at work or busy. Parents don't have money for summer camps or recreation leagues.
"Me, myself, I'd rather (librarians) have them in here, than in the streets in trouble," she said.
In Robbins, Priscilla Coatney has developed a rigid curriculum, and the 30 to 40 children who gather there in the afternoons write book reports, conduct science experiments and garden. But she's careful to explain to parents that the library is not a free baby-sitting service.
"When they're here, we keep them and make sure they are engaged," she said. "We are excited about these children."
In north suburban Zion, the children without parents are especially welcomed, said Carol Cramer, the youth services coordinator. They need the library the most.
"We like to see our library used," she said.
There are a handful of children who come in daily on their own to the Maywood library in the west suburbs, said Sheila Ferrari, head of youth services there. So she makes the most of the time.
"It's kind of what we're here for. It's natural for them to come here," she said.
Chicago Public Library branches have a summer reading program for children. But librarians have been known to secretly forgive fines, issue library cards and act as teachers and guardians. They read books to children roaming alone, push them into special programs and give them assignments to keep busy. When there are scuffles or too much noise, the security guards are called and privileges taken away.
At the Austin branch on the West Side, sometimes working parents will send their children to the library, then call to make sure they are there, said Elroy Christy, branch manager.
"When they tell their parents they're at the library, it alleviates anxiety," he said. "This is where they can get a cold drink of water. This is where they can use the restroom. This is where they are never turned away."
At Thurgood Marshall Library in Englewood, branch manager Jan Brooks is hesitant to discuss it, but he has at times checked out books in his own name for children and paid their late fines. He has even taken children outside to the fenced-in courtyard and shared his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the ones who don't have a lunch.
"I guess I'm more of a grandfatherly, spoil-the-child type rather than a strict-parent type," Brooks said. "So you're running around, that's no big deal for me. If you're talking, it doesn't bother me. That's so insignificant compared to what we could do to help a child."
On a recent afternoon at the Thurgood Marshall branch, 13 elementary school-age children crowded around the eight computer terminals. A couple of the children squeezed into one chair, and others pulled up their own to watch YouTube videos and play games.
When the phone rang, it was a parent looking for a daughter. Brooks walked around asking for Tiera. The checks are part of his daily routine, Brooks said.
"I allow the kids to call home and tell their parents they're here," Brooks said. "Technically we're not supposed to do that, but I think it's a good idea to let the parents know they're here and they're reading."
At the Chicago Heights library, Kevin Fleming is content sitting in front of a computer surrounded by his younger brother, Devin, his cousins and friends.
"It feels good in here," the animated 11-year-old with closely cropped black hair said, flapping his arms to absorb the chilly air conditioning. "I get to sit and rest. I get to get on the Web sites that I want."
When school lets out for summer break, it's at the library on West 15th Street where Kevin escapes from trouble and violence after summer camp is over, he said.
"He is there mostly everyday," Kevin's mother, Davita Dillard said. "It's fine with me, if that's where he likes to go."
Kyle Counts, 12, said he and his friends walk together to their local branch on Mondays and Fridays. Sometimes they read, but mostly they play computer or board games.
"Here, there's stuff to do and I've made new friends."
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