A Few Good Volunteers

Construction snarled traffic across midtown on a recent, steamy May afternoon in KC. But inside the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, a moment of quiet was being shared over a book.

Joy of Reading tutor Renee VanErp and her student, Parijat Mondal, bent over a science book spread out on a table in the Kids' Corner. Though his voice was soft, Parijat blazed through paragraphs on astronomy and physics, stopping only when he found an unfamiliar word.

The pauses were rare, considering that English is the boy's third language.

"Parijat speaks Bengali and Hindi, and he's learning Spanish at Carver Elementary," VanErp says. "I was fortunate to be matched with a young man who loves learning."

VanErp approached the Library two and a half years ago about volunteering. Like many in the Library's fleet of volunteers, VanErp came in looking to help, and she was put to work.

Coming from all walks of life and bringing a bevy of reasons for wanting to pitch in, volunteers are a welcome aid in helping staff run the Library system.

"Volunteers are here to make the librarians' lives easier," says Katie Taylor, volunteer coordinator for the Library.

By taking on a wide variety of responsibilities, volunteers make it easier for librarians to do what they do best: provide professional, personalized service to Library patrons.

This past April alone, 87 volunteers worked a total of 1,225 hours and touched nearly every corner of the Library system.

They assisted with teen programs, shelved books and helped maintain order in the collection, greeted people at public events, led book group discussions, proffered homework help, taught sewing classes, and worked on special projects through internships.

Their work enhances the Library's service to the community, and as a result, many of the volunteers find their work meaningful in return.

"I've been a huge fan of the public library all of my life, and I'm thrilled to be of service in this way," says VanErp, who remembers checking out books from the Southwest High School branch when she was a child.

As one the Library's growing number of Joy of Reading tutors (the program works with students in first through fourth grades), VanErp has spent the past two years helping Parijat improve his reading and writing skills an hour a week.

"This experience has rewarded me in countless ways," she says. "Parijat teaches me each week and renews my love of learning."

Sharing the joy: VanErp (left), with Parijat and his mother, Sonia Mondal (right)

Building a Community of Volunteers

Creating a corps of full-time volunteers as dedicated as VanErp is not easy. But for the Library to continue Building a Community of Readers, it's essential.

Taylor divides most volunteers into two groups: full-time or occasional.

The latter group consists of Library supporters who are available to work typically one-day events several times a year. At the recent Family Science Day at Trails West, five Jumpstart volunteers joined two other community members in leading 65 children and their parents through a morning's worth of hands-on science learning.

"These volunteers are the people you can count on to work a Library or community event - they're essential to the success of the event," Taylor says.

For potential full-time volunteers who, like VanErp, come in seeking to help out however they can, the Library requires a minimum six-month commitment at sign-up. For those who come looking to fulfill court-ordered community service, the Library only accepts those who have been sentenced to 75 hours or more of work.

After Taylor interviews a candidate, placement and availability are discussed. Before the background check is completed, Taylor consults with the branch manager on scheduling. An introduction is set up between the volunteer, Taylor, and the branch manager, and the training process begins.

Volunteers value the Library and are committed to making a difference in people's lives. It's no surprise that as Library staff works collaboratively with volunteers to deliver exceptional service, a mentoring relationship forms.

"Volunteers want to feel involved in the process," Taylor says. "They love the Library, and they want to give back."

Though the volunteer program could always stand to grow (Taylor envisions at least 10 regular volunteers at every branch), it's clear through people like VanErp and scores of other hardworking volunteers that this program is helping the Library build a community of readers.

Just spend a few minutes watching VanErp and Parijat engaged in the Joy of Reading.

"He melts my heart with some frequency," VanErp confesses.

The Kansas City Public Library is always looking for good volunteers. For information on becoming a volunteer, visit kclibrary.org/volunteering or call Katie Taylor at 816.701.3707.

-- Jason Harper