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Storytime Welcomes Kids with Special Needs

An Interview with Holly Jin

*This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

Outreach Librarian Holly Jin's mantra– "What special needs programming lacks in numbers it more than makes up for in heart and impact" -- is reflected in this interview about Skokie (IL) Public Library's efforts to reach out to kids with special needs.

Q: These programs are part of larger efforts to create a welcoming environment for kids with special needs and their caregivers. Talk about how these efforts originated at Skokie Public.

A: Skokie Public Library began a concerted effort to reach out to families of children with special needs in 2004 with the receipt of an LSTA grant entitled, "Come on In: The Library is a Special Place for Children with Disabilities." We had noticed that children were visiting the Library with their special education classes, but they weren't returning with their families. If we were honest with ourselves, we were also a little bit apprehensive because we weren't sure how to best interact with and serve the kids. The grant allowed us to receive training, increase our programming, purchase adapted toys and technology, and improve our collection.

Q: Describe ways, other than programming, that you reach out to these patrons.

A:  I think the key to successful outreach is to build relationships with the people you want to serve. Appointing a special needs coordinator lets families know that they have an advocate with whom they can feel safe talking with and sharing their concerns.  I'd like to get a regular e-newsletter going, but, in the meantime, if I come across something of interest to our families (e.g. a resource fair, a program at another location, an opportunity to qualify for an iPad, etc.)  I simply email them as a group. Recently, I've been trying to make the time to attend as many resource fairs and support groups as I'm able. I really want to get the word out that libraries are becoming more inclusive. An interesting note, because our outreach services began with grant money, we offer Skokie Public Library cards to children with special needs who live outside of our village; therefore, I don't pay that much attention to geographical boundaries when reaching out to families. We also happen to have a very large (and underutilized) Braille collection, and I occasionally have the pleasure of delivering books to a family of readers who live in my neighborhood. Our relationship has grown from librarian and patrons to friends and neighbors!

Q: Describe your two programs, Club Wonder and Rainbow Therapy.

A:  Club Wonder is a monthly program for families of children with special needs who are between three and seven years of age. We come together the third Saturday of each month for a one-hour class taught by local therapists. (I throw myself into the rotation of instructors so that I can share a sensory storytime with the kids three to four times per year). Partnering with local organizations allows the Library to offer a wider variety of learning experiences for our patrons and provides opportunities to connect families with potential service providers. The families have enjoyed everything from art to yoga with a lot of music and play in between. Having a regularly-occurring class also builds community among the families, which is very important for both children and parents/caregivers.

Rainbow Therapy Time is our monthly program for older children with special needs. The third Sunday of every month, Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy teams (dogs and handlers) and volunteer aides help 7-12 year olds strengthen motor skills, practice social skills, and increase language use. The kids love to walk the dogs, brush them, feed them, give commands, and play games together. The dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and each has his/her own bag of tricks, toys, and treats. The volunteer aides facilitate the children's interaction with the dogs and challenge them to try new things. And, at the end of each session, the aides give positive reports to the parents who are waiting (or relaxing) outside the program room.

Q: How has attendance been for these programs? 

A: As with any program, attendance varies by month, and both programs started with just a handful of participants. We limit Club Wonder to 20 people (family members included), and we only have 10 spots for Rainbow Therapy Time. It's really not feasible to have classes run bigger than that if we want to offer individualized attention and see growth in the children. Having a regular program schedule and registration process does help, but I've found I get the best attendance when I email our patrons the day before the program. These families, perhaps more than most, have a lot going on and really appreciate the opportunity to delay their registration until they know for certain they can attend.

Q: Is there anything you've changed about these programs since beginning them?

A: Club Wonder actually morphed out of our monthly Sensory Storytime. Through a survey, our parents shared a desire for music and art classes, so we shook things up a bit. This is our first school-year of Club Wonder, and it's going very well. Families are attending more regularly than they did for Sensory Storytime, and they're getting a lot out of it. The organizations appreciate it as well -- all of the participating therapists/instructors would like to return for a second class, and we have a short list of others who would like to join in on the fun.

Rainbow Therapy is always in flux – it's a very organic program with just a little bit of structure. How the program goes really depends on the kids who attend and what type of day they're having. The volunteers are great and just go with the flow. We've experimented with hosting two 30-minute sessions with five kids each, but we found that it's better to shoot for an hour and have the parents' cell phone numbers on hand in case a child isn't able to focus for the whole duration. Last fall we developed a visual schedule and a choice board using Boardmaker which are really helping the kids gain a sense of accomplishment.

Q: Do you specially select staff for these programs?

A:  Our library has a large staff, and we are very specialized, so I lead all of the programming for children with special needs.

Q: How do you measure success?

A: I live by the mantra, "What special needs programming lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in heart and impact." Our best measures of success are the degrees by which lives are enriched. [pull-out quote]We have a little girl with speech apraxia who has overcome fears by leaps and bounds, begun to use sign language, and has proven how much she knows by means of an iPad. Most recently, her mother scheduled a play date (her first!) with another girl from Club Wonder. And it's not just the girls who get along -- their brothers and mothers are having a great time of it as well!

Q: What have you learned?

A:  Recently, what's been most obvious to me is that even though I coordinate the programs and have gained experience over the years, I don't do anything in my own right. Everything is in partnership -- with families, with therapists, with volunteers, and with other staff members. I'm really just blessed to be a part of it!

Q: Do you have plans to add more programming? What are future plans?

A:  We learned from our survey that parents are interested in family workshops and parent lectures, so I'd like to look into hosting a monthly series of programs for parents. We're also working on making our general programs more universal and spreading the word that children of all abilities are welcome to any of our programs. We are happy to make accommodations as much as we are able to do so.

Most exciting is the professional networking group two of my Chicago-area colleagues and I have begun. Members of SNAILS (Special Needs and Inclusive Library Services) meet quarterly for training, collaboration, and inspiration and continue the conversation year-round on our blog. We're still in our infancy, but we're growing quickly -- we've already had representatives from 40 different libraries attend our meetings!

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Holly Jin is an Outreach Librarian in the Community Engagement Department of Skokie (IL) Public Library. She splits her time between coordinating services and programs for children with special needs and developing early literacy initiatives with early childhood educators. Holly is also a co-founder of SNAILS (Special Needs and Inclusive Library Services) -- a networking group of library professionals who serve children with disabilities in Illinois.