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Serving Teen Parents Part 2: A Conversation with Ellin Klor

In Part 2 of my spotlight on serving teen parents I interview Ellin Klor. Ellin, like her co-author Sarah Nordhausen (interviewed in Part 1), offers practical advice for working with teen parents in the library, particularly the importance of creating partnerships with community organizations and remaining flexible in programming. Thank you Ellin and Sarah for sharing your experiences and for your efforts in making the library a welcome place for teen parents and their children.

How did you start working with teen parents?

Ellin: Five years ago my library received an early family literacy grant from LSTA. One component of the grant was outreach to teen parents in the community, and I started doing the programming. I worked with a class of teen parents at a continuation high school that has a day care for the teens’ children attached to it. The girls also come to the branch library or Central Park library. The other work that I’ve done with teen parents was at the Bill Wilson Center, an organization in Santa Clara that offers services to teens who are homeless, runaways, or have emotional problems. The Center has transitional housing sites, including one for teen parents.

Do you offer services or programs to the teen parents that are different from services offered to teens who aren’t parents?

Ellin: Like with many underserved populations our experience has been that offering targeted programs to a specific organized group, like a teen parent class or support group, is the most effective use of our resources. Of course teen parents are welcome to attend any of our library programs, but not all of them have the wherewithal to manage to fit them into their schedule. Fitting into the structural context of their setting is a better way to approach working with teen parents.

How do you balance serving the literacy needs of the parent and those of the child?

Ellin: I see a duality— teens as teens and teens as parents. We try to help them see what the library has for them in both their roles. When the high school class comes to the library (without their children  due to car seat safety restrictions) the focus is on them. When I go to their school we focus on early literacy topics. The girls experience hands-on learning through story time with their children and other play activities. When first talking with their teachers about the girls and what they like to do, I was told that they liked crafts,  which they find relaxing and therapeutic. These activities are not something that they often have the opportunity to do. I try to make sure they know about the recreational opportunities offered by the library. I especially like developing projects for them that they can use with their children like making simple picture books that they can personalize. One example is a book for which I have written autobiographical prompts. In terms of their own literacy, many teens may be reading below their grade  level and have learning problems. We’re working on this through a grant from the Margaret Edwards Foundation that we received to promote reading for pleasure. I work with many Hispanic girls and asked their teachers to read aloud The Circuit, an autobiography by Francisco Jimenez of his childhood as a farmworker, and the girls were very moved by it. You have to find a topic or book format that will really resonate with them.

What would you say is a growing need for teen parents?

Ellin: Internet access and literacy. While they may have cell phones, they generally aren’t using them to connect to the Internet. Usually only about 30% have internet access at home. We work on helping them see how the library can support their information needs.  I make sure they know the library offers: preparation for job interviews, transition to community college for vocational training, parenting information, and health information. I show them websites for understanding their own and their children’s health needs, and how to prepare for their children’s doctor visits. I believe that the library can make a real difference in the quality of their families’ lives.

Tell us about any partnerships you have with other organizations? What advice do you have for setting up these partnerships?

Ellin: We’ve had a major partnership with the school district that started under the family early learning grant. We couldn’t do our work without collaborations- that’s how we find our audience. The grant was for one year, and at the end of the grant year the benefit was so clear that the teachers found funding to continue the program. The powers that be recognize that there’s value in what we’re doing, so they keep finding funding for us. The other collaboration we have is with the Bill Wilson Center, working with the teen parents living in their transitional housing facility. Collaboration is important for libraries; it helps others to see what the library can and is doing for the community.

My advice is to get out there and talk to people in your community. Be flexible in terms of addressing the needs that they see, what the library is trying to accomplish, and what it is that the donor wants to do to make the partnership work. Let the teens lead you in what to accomplish based on their interests; it’s great when the teens pick up and take off with what you’re trying to do.

In what ways can libraries and staff support teen parents?

Ellin: A huge thing, in general, is to make them feel welcome when they come to the library. Teen parents are still working on controlling their children’s behavior and may not understand the expectations of the library. Be compassionate and empathetic, not punitive. Give them access to information they need with teen parent information your website and create collections that will make them aware that the library has resources to help them with parenting. They may not know what to expect of their children developmentally, so the parenting component is huge. You also have to be a good listener to learn what their needs are and look ways that you can help them. One under the radar project has been to help them fulfill their graduation requirement for community service, which can be a scheduling challenge for them. On their library visits they spend some time on volunteer activities.

I run a loose ship during story time, take the long view and don’t let my ego get engaged in it. Over time the teens start to see how much it benefits their children. It’s especially important to make story time highly participatory. Older teens are more open to participating, but younger ones are still very self-conscious about doing things right. In the end it’s most important to them know that the library is there to help them.

Have you heard from other libraries since publishing your book? What has been the response?

Ellin: The book has received a good response. My co-author Sarah Nordhausen and I presented at the National Conference for Family Literacy this year in San Diego. I also did a poster session at ALA in Anaheim on the bookmaking program that I do with the teens.

What do you like most about working with teen parents?

Ellin: I love the challenge of trying something with them and having it succeed, whether it’s a program just for them or one with their children. It’s great when you see some light bulbs are going on, and are sharing what you love with them in a really fun way. I did a spa day at the branch library and the teens used recipes to make scrubs, toners, masks, potpourri, scent bath salts; we set the mood with lemon cucumber water and candles. They loved it. It’s wonderful for them to see that they can be playful with their kids and that kids can learn through play. By giving them connections with the library they know that what we offer can make their lives better. I’m always amused that the girls will never directly tell me if they like something or if they learn something, but they always tell my (much younger) assistant who then tells me.

Ellin Klor can be reached at ellinklor@sbcglobal.net.

Interview by Africa Hands, Library Services to Special Populations and Their Caregivers Committee Member

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