February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Children in Crisis: Libraries Respond


Oralia Garza de Cortes, a children’s literature consultant from Austin, TX, and Lucia Gonzalez, director of the North Miami Public Library, arrived at the 2014 American Library Association (ALA) conference with something other than professional development and networking on their minds: the thousands of refugee children fleeing Central America. The media was filled with images of traumatized children—often unaccompanied—desperately escaping violence, only to be detained at the United States border. The two knew that libraries had to help. “This humanitarian crisis was looming everywhere, and our hearts went out to these kids. We thought that if nothing else, we can keep their minds and imaginations alive through books and libraries,” recalls Garza de Cortes. They asked for volunteers, and by the end of the conference, The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA) had formed a task force to implement the Children in Crisis initiative.

A formidable challenge

The group’s original plan was to distribute books and introduce library services to children in shelters and detention centers, but navigating the immigration system was difficult. Project co-chair Patrick Sullivan, emeritus librarian at San Diego State University, recalls that privacy and security concerns prevented the earliest volunteers from entering detention centers in Texas.

With each attempt, though, the group learned more. In August of 2015, an international delegation of librarians, authors, publishers, editors, and booksellers representing REFORMA, International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), U.S. IBBY, and IBBY Mexico/A Leer! visited the Texas Rio Grande Valley together on a fact-finding trip. They came away with a renewed spirit of cooperation and a more complete understanding of the circumstances of refugee detainment. This trip led to the development of deliberate, practical strategies to reach refugee children.

With knowledge came work-arounds

Children are detained just beyond our borders. After a stay of up to 72 hours in a detention center, unaccompanied children who are not reunited directly with family members move to shelters operated by social service agencies in every state. They may stay there for months awaiting a court hearing. Each location is different, but REFORMA volunteers have established and maintained relationships with shelters in several states, where they deliver books and library cards, and conduct programs. Organizers believe this is an area where local libraries can have a significant impact.

A lifeline

Refugee children find this insert in their new books.

Refugee children find this insert in their new books.

Garza de Cortes notes that each book carries a bilingual bookplate and insert donated by IBBY with instructions about how to get a library card. For many, that card becomes a lifeline. “These kids are coming from places that don’t have libraries. They have to navigate a very complicated process, and knowing they can go into a library for information, to use a computer, or get help finding other services, all for free, is critical,” says Garza de Cortes.

Children in Crisis is still completely volunteer run, and the program is only possible through generous donations of bilingual books as well as funds. Both IBBY and the Association of Library Services to Children (ALSC) have awarded grants to the program, and ALA has passed a resolution of support. Patricia Aldana, the Toronto-based president of IBBY, was born in Guatemala; for her, this effort is personal. IBBY has worked with refugee children around the world, but this case is unique because the children are so widely dispersed. Aldana believes that outreach through a network of libraries is especially effective, and IBBY is working to adapt this model for European libraries serving refugees from Syria and other places.

Ways to help

The most immediate need is for volunteers to get more books into the hands of more kids—at bus stations, detention centers and shelters, and at libraries throughout the country.

A webinar and toolkit can help librarians in every state support the distinct needs of refugees. Libraries can begin by partnering with pro bono legal services, social services, shelters, and other local assistance organizations.

Garza de Cortes believes that to act is the only option. “It’s been a real labor of love, this project. I don’t know too many people involved that are not affected.”


Melanie Baron is a consultant to libraries and museums around the country. She is proud to have been a founding staff member of ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center.


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