February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ohio Storytime Turns Into Life-Changing Program for Low-income Families

boy, book

The four of us, a team, stood together at the bus stop, waving to a beaming four-year old boy as he ran to catch his school bus. We all clapped and cheered as he continued to wave from the window. As we watched the bus drive down the road, every one of us wiped away tears. It was a group effort, but Max* was finally going to get a preschool experience, one that he desperately needed.

Five months earlier, Max was one of our first visitors to Play, Learn and Grow, a pop-up storytime and early learning program created through a collaboration between Twinsburg (OH) Public Library and Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA). Twinsburg is an upper-middle class suburb about 25 miles north of Akron. AMHA owns the subsidized housing apartments that are home to nearly 75 low-income children under the age of five.

The journey to that victory for Max began when I noticed that none of the children living in the housing development were coming to storytime at our library. I reached out to AMHA representatives, hoping they would be open to the idea of the library hosting a weekly program at the development. They were, partnering me with one of their employees, Kellie Morehouse, who was already working with families within the complex.

We set up Play, Grow, and Learn in an unused room behind the apartment leasing office. Our initial goal was to get to know children age five and younger and their families through storytime, crafts, and free play. As the weeks went on, we saw everything that these families lacked: employment, education, transportation, healthy food, proper healthcare, access to preschool, even reliable phone service.

boy, tower

connecting the dots

We realized pretty early on that we could sing every Laurie Berkner song and read Bill Martin Jr.’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom with this group a thousand times. But with major stresses in their lives, our young participants weren’t going to make great strides. Parents wanted help, but they didn’t have the means to get it.

Kellie and I started to connect the dots.

A lack of transportation was one of the greatest barrier our families were dealing with. Without a driver’s license and car, getting food, diapers, medical care, and preschool services is challenging, if not impossible, due to location of the complex in relation to public transportation routes.

First things first

Many of the children hadn’t had any vaccinations or were very behind in their shots. So we arranged for Ohio Department of Health representatives to visit during our storytime sessions to provide free vaccinations.

The local Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) health office is only a few miles away, but not on an easy bus route, so moms were not taking their children for check-ups. This was particularly disturbing because we saw children who were showing development delays that probably would have been otherwise flagged by a doctor. After months of discussion, WIC will be opening up a new office in a small room adjacent to our storytime space! This is a fantastic achievement, because our moms will be able to talk to a medical profession about their concerns on a regular basis and access other benefits of WIC, such as formula and food coupons.

moms baby

Taking care of the moms

Through AMHA and Child Guidance & Family Solutions, we were able to help solve another important piece of the puzzle: maternal depression. Early experiences with storytime revealed a desire of the young mothers to interact with one another.  This led the AMHA representative to suggest teaming storytime with one of the organization’s programs for moms.  AMHA and a local behavioral health agency had been working together to provide maternal depression support groups to low-income women in other parts of the county.

A new location for our Mom-ME Time was born, slightly different from the other sites, because here, the library is a third partner that works with the children while the mothers are in their support group. Twice a month, the moms in our storytime are able to meet in a group setting with a professional to discuss their frustrations and worries. Mom-ME Time has become key, as so many of our moms are dealing with heavy pressures every day, and most do not have a strong support network. Being able to vent and get helpful parenting advice can be crucial to the choices they are making for their young children.

Filling hungry bellies

Many of our families are not getting enough food. After obtaining funding through a United Way Community Cares Grant, we can now serve lunch to our storytime participants each week. We order in simple fare like pizza, pasta, and salads. We buy sides (such as juice boxes, string cheese, fresh fruit, and applesauce) in bulk and store them in our fridge. After lunch, we see the kids get a second wave of energy. The moms seem to relax over lunch, giving us the opportunity as program leaders to chat with them.

In addition to the weekly lunches, we’ve brought the local food bank—again, under-utilized due to its location—to our families. The Emergency Assistance Center, together with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, will begin monthly distribution of fresh produce to the residents in the community.

girl, book

Last, but certainly not least: preschool

Perhaps the most startling fact we’ve had to face is that virtually none of the preschool-aged children attend any kind of early learning program on a regular basis. The local Head Start will not provide busing. Our local school district offers a preschool, and it will bus kids if they have a documented disability, but those only in limited numbers. So the kids without a disability or transportation completely fall through the cracks. Even those children in our community who do have a disability have to be evaluated and granted an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). That process, too, requires transportation, to attend various meetings at the school and elsewhere.

Max is one of the lucky ones. Thanks to being able to arrange visits from intervention specialists in our district, we—a tireless team composed of his mom, myself, Kellie, and youth services associate Julie Strok—were able to finally get Max his Individualized Education Program, and on that bus! We will continue to work on getting all these kids a quality preschool education.

Unconventional outreach at its best

We started on this journey almost a year ago. I look at Play, Grow, and Learn as unconventional outreach, yet probably the most rewarding work of my career. I’ve been so fortunate to have an incredibly supportive library director, board of trustees, and youth services staff, who all recognize the importance of reaching out to this underserved population.

Working with Kellie, I’ve been able to better understand the numerous barriers families in poverty face and what can help break the cycle. Kellie and I have joked about being Batman and Robin, both working toward a common goal, but bringing our unique experiences and training to the table.

The research shows that children living in poverty have an uphill battle toward success in school. As librarians, we know the importance of early literacy skills and getting children ready to read. As educators, we know that early intervention is imperative with children with developmental delays. Lastly, as parents we know that it takes a village to raise a child. Reaching out to these families early on is only going to increase chances of a happy ending….so embracing this program, unconventional or not, is vital to the success of our community.

Inspired? Katie’s Got Advice

Librarians interested in replicating this idea should start by contacting their local housing authority’s Resident Services Department; the housing authority’s property management would also need to be involved in order to secure space in a community room. At this time, to our knowledge, the Early Childhood Initiative (ECI) is the only housing authority that provides this type of early childhood service in-house, but other housing authorities have expressed interest in replicating the ECI model.

AMHA’s ECI receives no money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is instead funded primarily by local foundations and a state grant.

Creating and maintaining professional relationships and community partnerships has increased access to these grant opportunities. Grant applications are typically completed on an annual basis, and in these applications, many details such as project need, participant demographics, goals and measurable objectives and an annual budget must be provided. In addition to the application, most funders will require a report detailing how well the stated objectives were met and how the money was used at the end of the funding cycle.

The Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority’s (AMHA) Resident Services Department applied for a grant through United Way in order to provide additional supportive services that are not covered by HUD. Programs interested in obtaining a United Way grant should contact their local United Way to discuss possible funding opportunities.



Katie Johnson is the Youth Services Manager at Twinsburg Public Library in Twinsburg, OH.


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  1. Laura Kovach says:

    What an inspiring article, Katie! You have done great things for your community!

  2. Jessica Hazeltine says:

    What amazing, nurturing and caring person you are, Katie. A true labor of love with life changing results!

  3. Laura Leonard says:

    As Director of the Twinsburg Public Library, I am very proud of what Katie has been able to accomplish with the partnership with AMHA and Kellie. I felt naive not knowing that there is a reason parents can’t make it to parent-teacher conferences, workshops and library programs. Several entities, especially the School District have been aggressive in trying to solve issues caused by political boundaries and funding. Teachers have come to the center on their lunch hours to work with the children, and several organizations have been working on solving the transportation problem. Being a player at the “table” is important to every library-we are happy to be at such an important one.

  4. Connie Aichele says:

    Thank you, Katie, for working hard to create this great program for preschoolers! Preschool education is so important!l

  5. Carolyn Brodie says:

    Wow Katie! What an outstanding and life-changing program for all involved. So very proud of the difference your work is making in the lives of children and their families. And so wonderful that you have shared this story that will inspire others across the country. Thank you….

  6. Sarah Gnoddie says:

    What a great article and program! Truly inspiring! Another organization to bring in would be Help Me Grow. I know it is free to families in Cuyahoga County, not sure about Summit. Help Me Grow is a statewide service that provides education and development services to expectant mothers, babies, and toddlers under 3. It is not income-based, anyone is eligible. I have used Help Me Grow for my son and now the staff is helping me transition to the school district for early intervention services. What’s also great, they come to you! Whether at your home or work or whatever.

  7. Kathy Tomayko says:

    Katie, you are awesome! What a difference you have made to those children. Thank you.

  8. Lori Faust says:

    This is a fabulous story! For youth services librarians in Ohio who want to partner with community agencies, I highly recommend joining your county’s Family and Children First Council. I work in Trumbull County, and my involvement with the Council has led to several fruitful collaborations not to mention a much greater understanding on my part of the many challenges and barriers many of our young families are facing.

  9. Amazing! Good for you!!!

  10. Maxi Moraga says:

    This is such an inspiring story! A great example of an amazing librarian, library, library staff! Libraries are not just about books, they bringing resources, services and information to the community.