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How the Great Stories Club uses heroism and empathy to connect underserved youth





The Great Stories Club, a program initiative introduced by the American Library Association (ALA), chose the Grand Rapids Public Library (GRPL) as one of the 100 libraries nationwide as their grant recipient to implement in Grand Rapids. As a result, GRPL is collaborating with Grand Rapids HQ, a drop-in center for youth undergoing unsafe or unstable housing, to provide young individuals the valuable experience of inclusive, open-ended conversations through the Great Stories Club.

The program will facilitate for its youth members engagement in meaningful literature and discussion. Over the span of a year, between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019, a variety of books related to the theme of heroism and empathy, including titles such as “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began” by Art Spiegelman, will be read and discussed by club participants.

GRPL Youth Services Librarian and Great Stories Club facilitator Mark Jemerson says he hopes participants are able “To make connections between their lives and the lives of the protagonists, and will feel empowered with the knowledge that they can make positive change in their lives, despite hardship.”

For each book, eight to 10 participants will engage in three 45-minute long, socratic-like sessions held at HQ. The first session will be an introduction to the book, during which each participant will receive a free copy. The second will be discussion of participants’ initial thoughts and will include a breakout activity, and the third will conclude with a wrap-up dialogue. All participants will be members of HQ, chosen on a voluntary basis.

HQ drop-in manager Drea McKinney will be partnering with Jemerson throughout the program to ensure the program maintains the space and other resources necessary for successful facilitation.

For initiatives like the Great Stories Program, McKinney explains that vulnerability and openness are a part of what makes HQ a welcoming facility for youth to explore their identity.

“Our sole purpose, one of the main purposes of HQ, is that connection part,” McKinney says. “We just sit down with youth and typically they’re in crisis, so sometimes those conversations can look very service-like, very basic needs … but I mean, day-to-day is different. It just depends on what the youth are able to show, because we meet them where they are.”

One of McKinney’s expectations for the program is “To get the youth involved so they can showcase how incredibly bold and talented they are, which we know; but to showcase that inside of HQ and to the outside community. To increase accessibility.”

Jemerson has high hopes for the program as well.

“There is not a program like this established in Grand Rapids with the support of a national organization, so it will provide an avenue into reading that they would not have had in the past,” says Jemerson. “The support of ALA means that there are people in positions of power who are looking out for [the youth] and their future.”

Images courtesy of the Great Stories Club.
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