Know Your Librarians: Sukalaya Kenworthy

Whether she’s teaching ESL classes to customers from Ethiopia, organizing a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, or speaking at a local school about her own Thai culture, Sukalaya Kenworthy is spreading multicultural awareness from her station at the Westport Branch.

A library associate of five years at the Kansas City Public Library, Sukalaya – “Su” for short – spent half a year as a technical assistant at Trails West before transferring to the Westport Branch as a library associate.

A native of Bangkok, Thailand, Su came to the States in 1996 to get her Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Central Missouri (then called Central Missouri State). It was there that she met her husband, Curry Kenworthy.

Why did she choose KC?

“I was working in Thailand at a government office that helped people find places to study abroad. I looked through schools [for myself], and this just felt like the part of the country where I wanted to be – in the middle,” she says.

Now, she’s in the midst of a diverse of array of activities at the Westport Branch. In addition to managing regular teen gaming and crafts activities, she facilitates the KC Metro Poets monthly meetings. This past summer, she organized summer reading programs and spearheaded the Cinco de Mayo festival at the Westport Branch, which had neighborhood kids performing traditional dances and breaking a piñata.

Twice a month, Sukalaya puts her graduate degree to work, teaching an ESL class; the current roster includes students from Mexico, South America, and Ethiopia.

She’s brushed up on her own Spanish to improve her teaching and to better serve the Library’s Spanish-speaking population in general. And her efforts to learn other people’s languages have led to relationships that go beyond the Library’s doors.

“It’s amazing. I’ve made so many friends,” she says.

She says that her foreign customers – especially those from Ethiopia and Mexico – have been the quickest to invite her to their homes for dinner.

“There aren’t many barriers in these cultures,” Sukalaya says.

Su has also accepted invitations to talk about her native culture at Westport High School and Allen Village School.

Her outreach efforts expand to spreading the word about the Kansas City Public Library, too. In August, she attended a Literacy Fair in Independence, where she gave information about the Library’s ESL classes, the H&R Block Business & Career Center, computer classes, and general services.

One thing most of Sukalaya’s coworkers probably don’t know: She’s also an author and human-rights advocate. Her 2004 young adult novel, Hmong Means Free, focuses on religious persecution and human rights abuses in Vietnam.

Sukalaya says her favorite Library customers are teens.

“They are loud, noisy, and out of order, and when they say something, it’s almost in another language,” she jokes.

“They’re a fun group to work with,” she says.

This past October, at the Library’s annual employee appreciation event, Su’s knack for working with patrons was recognized. She was given the Library-wide Customer Service Award.

Because if anyone’s equipped to break down barriers, it’s Sukalaya

Explore the Library

Sukalaya Kenworthy’s Favorite Books About Thai and Asian Culture

  • Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Marsden – “A girl in a northern Thai province who paints and sells silk umbrellas worries that modernization will end her family’s business.”
  • The Gold-Threaded Dress by Carolyn Marsden – “Oy, a Thai girl living in America, tries to impress her friends by bringing her mother's beautiful traditional dress to show her friends at school. It shows how Asian children try to fit in and adjust to American culture.”
  • Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Ho Minfong – “This picture book reminds me of life in a Thai village, where people still sing lullabies to their babies.”
  • Chang and the Bamboo Flute and Bird Boy by Elizabeth Starr Hill – “A mute boy lives with his parents on a houseboat on the Li River in China. He overcomes many obstacles to learn how to catch fish and make friends. Excellent books!”
  • A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (Newbery Medal 2002) – “Tree Ear, a Korean boy in the 12th century wants to learn how to make pottery from an experienced potter. He works really hard to become an apprentice.”
  • Classic Thai Cuisine by David Thompson – “The recipes in this cookbook are very authentic, and the dishes are local to the provinces of Thailand. I'm surprised that this book was written by an American! Wonderful dishes with spices!!!”

-- Jason Harper