Spotlight Like so many moms, Marianne Pierce wants her 8-year-old son, Billy, to succeed. But it’s not been easy for Pierce to find helpful information at the library for her son, who has Down syndrome—especially when he was a youngster.
"I remember when Billy was born, I was given a book from the 1950s or ‘60s," says Pierce, who lives in Evergreen Park. "You don’t want a child to walk into a library and get this kind of information."
Last month, Evergreen Park Public Library, 9400 S. Troy Ave., launched a program to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The library now offers nearly 100 books, cassettes, CDs, videos, magazines and computer programs for elementary-age children with special needs, their parents and siblings. A new monthly story time will also be geared toward kids with special needs. People with library cards from 76 south and west suburban libraries can check out the materials; the computer programs and story time are open to all.
The effort, funded by a $17,000 grant from the Illinois State Library in Springfield, is thanks to Pierce, Kathy Rohan and Jill McGrath, all Evergreen Park moms with special needs children.
"It was actually their input," says library Director Nicki Seidl, who wrote the grant proposal. "They had the expertise. They know the publishers who are good, the authors who have helped."
And Feb. 4, the library will celebrate with an open house and a talk by Paula Kluth, an education consultant and author of You’re Going to Love this Kid!: Educating Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms.
Find a book and acceptance
Seidl and the three mothers coordinated the collection, along with staff from nearby Evergreen Park School District 124 and from AERO, a south suburban special education cooperative in Burbank.
Barbara Chwierut, a speech pathologist at AERO, who helped train library staff, says it is crucial to have the right books for children. "A lot of the material that is available at the library was just not appropriate for some of our kids with special needs."
Rohan, whose 10-year-old son, Leo, has a learning disability, agrees. "I think it’s thrilling, and definitely for the parents of younger children who are first getting diagnosed to just have those resources over there will be phenomenal," she says.
Also included in the program is a monthly 45-minute story time. While the stories are for all children, they will be geared toward kids who might not be able to sit still or will occasionally interrupt the reading.
Dolores Smith, a part-time librarian, is helping plan the new story times. She aims to capture kids’ attention with large pictures, tactile attachments, not too many words and a craft.
"If they have something to say, you listen. If they get up and walk around, it’s fine. If they would get restless, that’s when you would come in with a song," says Smith, who taught kindergarten in the Chicago Public Schools for 34 years.
The story time and new materials offer great resources. But they will also help kids with special needs—and their families—feel welcome, says Lyndsay Malmloff, a master’s student in special education at St. Xavier University, who is also helping with the story time. "I know a lot of parents complain that the libraries are a very quiet place and a lot of times, children with disabilities may not be able to be quiet all the time. ... I think [the library staff is] trying to show the children are certainly welcome even if they can’t be 100 percent quiet."
Jean Kobelt, who teaches third grade at Southwest Elementary School in District 124, thinks the library is a perfect place to help children feel accepted.
"I find children are the most flexible and accepting of any differences, so what better climate than a library among the books that allow kids to kind of be themselves?" Kobelt says. "I feel like books are kind of the tie that binds … we’re comforted by them, thrilled by them, mesmerized and sometimes they even change us."
McGrath, whose 10-year-old twins, Tim and Marty, are autistic, says it works. "What the library did is give [the kids] a feeling of acceptance in the community, whatever your ability is, and that by far I think outweighs whatever the materials will do."
Here is a sampling of other libraries with special needs resources:
• Aurora Public Library www.aurora.lib.il.us (630) 264-4100 About 100 books on educating children with disabilities.
• Burr Ridge Public Library Metropolitan Library system www.mls.lib.il.us/ Digital audio books for all levels. Recently received a federal grant to create an online, statewide book discussion program, which will offer 6,000 audio books to 70 network libraries.
• Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Center (312) 747-4001 www.chipublib.org Talking Book Center has more than 20,000 children’s books on tape, as well as many braille books for kids.
• Evanston Public Library www.evanston.lib.il.us (847) 866-0300 Parenting books, workshops and story times for special needs kids.
• Evergreen Park Public Library www.evergreenparklibrary.org (708) 422-8522
• Oak Lawn Public Library www.lib.oak-lawn.il.us (708) 422-4990 Braille books, sign language books and a story hour for 3- to 5-year olds.
• Wilmette Public Library www.wilmette.lib.il.us (847) 256-5025 Software, books on tape and CD and large print books for children.