Kent District Library connects community through resources, programs and more

Providing books is just one aspect of what a library can offer its patrons. As part of their community outreach programming, libraries across the Kent District Library (KDL) system are working hard to connect underserved and underrepresented communities with workplace readiness resources and job placements. Sara Proaño, KDL community engagement manager oversees outreach programs focused on KDL’s first pillar of the 2021-2023 Strategic Plan — EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion). 

“One of the things we realize as a library system is that we need to align with what is already happening in the community,” says Proaño. Whether these partnerships are with churches, community organizations, businesses, health organizations, advocacy groups, parenting groups, etc., Proaño says the library aims to align with organizations and collaborate rather than replicate or compete with services offered. Instead, the Library creates ways to make effective transfers, which KDL refers to as warm referrals, like directly transferring or connecting patrons to phone lines of organizations that can help or making sure patrons can make it to their appointments. 

As part of KDL’s cultural core values — to be inclusive, authentic, positive, courageous and helpful, Proaño says listening to the needs of local organizations is vital to being an asset to the community. Community feedback led to the addition of easy-to-access soft skills and training programs providing patrons with certifications and career exploration through a LinkedIn and merged database via KDL’s website.

“The library can be a repository of knowledge and training so that our partnering organizations can center on what they do best,” says Proaño. “There are two things we do —  first align with what is happening in the community, participate, listen and learn so that we can make accurate referrals. The second thing is listen to their needs so that we can provide what is needed, kind of fill the void of those areas in which the library can step in.”

When it comes to workplace readiness and job placements, KDL staff is aware that each jobseeker is potentially at a different step in the process. Each jobseeker can also have different barriers to access. For those seeking tutoring services or the high school diploma program, resources only go so far in-library and some patrons don’t have access to devices outside of business hours. To combat this issue, KDL purchased mobile Wi-Fi hot spots and can direct/connect patrons to CompreNew to receive donated desktop computers, and help them apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to get help paying for internet. 

For those with language barriers, last month, the Bookmobile offered three virtual visits for bilingual students at La Escuelita Preschool and Bethany Christian Services. Other partnerships exist with Healthier Communities at Spectrum Health, to serve 120 Hispanic/Latinx/native Central American families with Bookmobile visits, library card sign-ups, Spanish book clubs, tech tutoring and other internet resources. Still, others who need transportation to job interviews are directed to Wheels to Work with Hope Network.

“Every job seeker is going to have different needs,” says Proaño. “In order to [meet them], you need to know what’s available in your community. It’s really a collaboration, we have to be in sync to be able to do this together, and then our partners are more successful, and our patrons are more successful and better-served.”

As a network, KDL has three main focus areas —  increasing accessibility, increasing presence and representation of staff, volunteers and Board members, according to Proaño. In terms of presence, the Libraries look at who’s coming in their doors, attending events, and what groups of people and neighborhoods aren’t being represented. This is where the Bookmobile can make a big difference in bridging that gap. Recently, KDL was contacted by the Black and Brown Cannabis Guild (BBCG) for an expungement clinic to help eligible Kent County residents clean their criminal record of marijuana-related offenses.The KDL Bookmobile provided Wi-Fi, 12 computers, two hot spots for registration, and a printer. Serving communities like this, meeting residents where they are, and helping with what they need is KDL’s main mission, says Proaño.

“Being tax-funded means we need to make sure our community has knowledge and access to the services we offer,” she says. “This is the money for the people. I am their servant. We don’t call them clients; they are our patrons. They are the owners of the resources that we steward.”

Throughout the network of KDL branches, regardless of the task at hand, Proaño thinks highly of librarians, both intellectually and emotionally. “Librarians have huge brains. They’re very smart, but their heart is even bigger. It’s incredible. Librarians are really caring people; they usually go the extra mile. They make sure whatever the question was, it was answered.” 

Completing these warm referrals ensures patrons and community organizations are both listened to, accounted for, and served to the best of KDL and the surrounding community network’s ability.

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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