This month, we are following up on our Toolkit for Spanish Speaking Populations with an interview with Amelia Martinez. She is both part of the Spanish-speaking community and serves the Spanish-speaking community and brings a wealth of insight to working with underserved populations.
What is your current position? How long have you worked in your library/community?
I am a Public Service Assistant (Cultural Focus) at the Whatcom County Library System. I started working for the library system 10 years ago. Prior to the library, I worked at a Migrant Head Start as a teacher aid. Before that, I worked for 5 years as a Community Health Worker for Sea Mar Community Clinic. I learned how challenging it is to access services for a lot of Hispanic families. It’s hard when you come from a different country and you are dealing with a language barrier. You are learning everything including the culture, new laws, new systems, and trying to adjust and fit in without losing yourself.
How did you learn about the library?
I used to take my child to the library. I remember feeling out of place because I wasn’t seeing other Hispanic families. All the programs were in English. We would just be in a little corner, picking books for my son and reading to him.
When I heard that the library wanted to reach out [to our underserved communities] after accepting my position, I was very excited and joyful because I remember how it was for me and how important it is for kids.
What type of programs or outreach have you done for this community?
- Library Tours: For us [Latinos with a language barrier], it’s challenging to find and trust new places or new people. I give Spanish-speaking families a tour of the library whenever I can and explain how the library works. I tell them about my own experience and acknowledge how scary it can be. For example, a lot of Hispanic kids get a library card registration form from school and the parents come to see us all concerned about the cost, or afraid of the information given by the child.
- Visiting Families Where They Are: We did family visits at some migrant camps with crafts, games from my childhood, and books. Most of the families attending our programs now have come from there. Sometimes we partner with other organizations, local schools, clinics, etc. One of the goals for me is for families to see the library as a fun and safe place, where they feel confident to explore all the exciting things we offer; and hopefully spark a love of reading.
- Family Fiestas: A program for home childcare providers, giving them STARS credits. We gathered weekly and had fun working on basic skills like how children learn through reading, writing, playing, singing, and talking. We did exercises like bring in books in Russian or Punjabi and ask them “What can you do with this book? What do you see in the drawings?”. We did role playing, games, puppets, provided snacks and childcare with the help of high school students. Most of the time, family events were more successful because we facilitated opportunities for family engagement.
- Día de los Niños: Once a year event for all families. We started it by sharing Latino traditions: games, books, piñata, music, crafts, food, and folkloric dancing. Children enjoy performing most of these activities.
- Prime Time Family Reading: I love this program because we are modeling how to read the book and how to come up with questions that relate back to them. What I liked the most was that parents were getting a chance to participate and take the books to read at home and practice whatever they liked from what the presenters were doing.
- Bilingual/Spanish Storytimes: I enjoy the opportunity of having children of diverse cultures in one program. One challenge that I had for Storytime was finding materials in Spanish. I realized that our tools and materials in Spanish were very limited.
- Wellness Phone Call: Reaching out to families by phone and explaining how the [limited services due to the Pandemic] process is now. This also helps me to keep connected and invite families to programs.
Where do you go for new ideas or inspiration? Would a toolkit be useful in your role?
Children and coworkers inspire me. I like to learn what other libraries are doing. There are some Latinos who are in the position to do more and would probably like to help out, but just don’t know how. Sometimes all it takes is leadership. It inspires me when I see someone creating programs and doing something extra. This toolkit is very encouraging, if we don’t offer any programs in Spanish, we don’t get any Hispanic families. I would like all families to feel included in our libraries and in our communities.
How important is it for the library to establish a relationship with the community?
I think this is a community effort. A program I have in mind is to bring in Latino professionals (doctor, teacher, fire fighter, police officer), so that families feel more comfortable in the community. We are starting to have enough Latinos in these positions now. I have support from my library but partnering with other community organizations and volunteers makes things more sustainable and successful.
What should we keep in mind when working with underserved populations?
Some families come to the library but if they don’t see me or if something happens, they stop going. To establish trust, I try to introduce families to my coworkers and show how everyone is friendly.
Remember that not everyone is born with the same possibilities or capacities: race, age, social economic situation, physical and mental capabilities, whether they’re living at home or not, etc. We tend to generalize. Instead, let’s connect with each family to show that they matter and learn what is important to them and what their needs are.
Amelia Martinez is a Public Service Assistant (Cultural Focus) at the Lynden Library. She works with community leaders to deliver intentional programs and outreach to Latino and Hispanic families. Her goal is for the library to be a welcoming place for all families so that they can discover the joys of reading and learning without bounds.
Melody Leung is a Children’s Librarian with the Whatcom County Library System in Washington State. She has delivered Prime Time family reading programs and book groups for kids who just need a little boost of confidence. Previously, she served on the 2020 Geisel Award Committee.
Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an assistant professor of English (Youth Literature) at West Chester University. She previously served on the 2018 Pura Belpré Award committee and will be serving on the 2022 Newbery Award committee.
Photo courtesy of guest blogger