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Belvidere library strives to serve -- and include -- everyone in the community

Frida Valentina, 3,
Maria Gardner Lara
Frida Valentina, 3, works on a craft after listening to a story during the bilingual story time at the Ida Public Library in Belvidere.

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Across the country, libraries have been the battle ground for cultural debates about gender and race resulting in book bans and debates on who can host story times. At the Ida Public Library in Belvidere, the staff strive to fulfill their mission and be an inclusive space for all residents. Usually, they didn’t receive much attention for it -- until recently.

Rainbow Club

A mom and her 12-year-old daughter were creating jean jacket patches as part of Rainbow Club. The gatherings meet monthly and are aimed which at LGBTQ teens and allies.

“I think it looks awesome,“ the mom said, trying to reassure the child of her artistic abilities. “I wouldn't redo it but if you would like to, you might, but I would not redo it. I think it looks perfect.”

“I wanted to have that space,” said Leah Hotchkiss, the teen service librarian and host of the club, “where they felt that they would be able to come and gather and meet other kids who either are thinking about their identities or just want a place where they can be themselves.”

At every meeting, she said, she’ll lay out some books with LGBTQ themes and authors for the youth to browse and the building materials for making a craft.

She said they're pretty low-key gatherings -- in contrast to an off-shoot celebration they had in June for Pride month. That event, she explained, entailed several stations for kids to make crafts, games and sticker prizes.

The event received backlash on the library’s Facebook page and at the library board meeting. Folks argued that LGBTQ topics were not appropriate for children. Three protestors stood outside the library, while the party was held inside.

She said despite the negative feedback, it’s important for youth to have the chance to become who they are even if it’s not what society or their parents expect.

“And that can be very tough and very scary for parents to understand and to think about,” Hotchkiss said. “But kids are going to find out who they are. And I think it's better that we provide spaces where they feel safe to do so rather than making them deal with it all on their own.”

Programming like the Rainbow Club is key, said Mindy Long, the library director, especially as a means to address the high suicide rate among LGBTQ teens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBTQ high school students were about four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

“So,” she said, “we're trying to help negate that and give them a place where they feel comfortable, because it's pretty much the number one reason [for the suicide attempts] - they don't feel like they have a place in the world. And you do have a place in the library.”

Illinois Card for Kids Act

Long said the library strives to be an inclusive and accessible space in other areas, as well. This year the library began offering free library cards to all youth in Boone County.

They did so under the ‘Illinois Cards for Kids Act’ that allows library districts to expand their services to youth outside of their taxing district.

“So,” Long said, “the library board said, ‘All children deserve to read.’”

Long said it’s better for society when youth are reading books rather than spending their time on Tik Tok and Twitter.

“We need them to be reading books,” she said.

Belvidere residents do not pay for a library card since it’s covered through their property taxes. Folks living outside of the city but living within a county would have to pay separately to obtain a library card. The fee, she explained, is based on their home’s property value or their rent and on average can cost a couple hundred dollars a year.

“It's not it's not easy to come up with that kind of money,” Long said. “So, that's why the children get the card for no fee no matter what.”

The library also provides programming for youth with special needs. And the bookmobile allows the library to go out in the community such as assisted living facilities and parks.

“So,” she said, “we're trying to reach as many varied and different aspects of Belvidere and Boone County as we possibly can.”

Spanish-speaking community

According to the latest U.S. Census, 30 percent of households in Belvidere speak a language other than English at home.

Belena Garza is the library’s assistant director and to reach the Latino and Spanish-speaking community, she leads the bilingual programming that encompasses ESL tutoring as well as assistance with navigating library and community resources.

Included in the programming is bilingual story time. On one afternoon, Garza read “De Aqui Como El Coqui,” a story about a boy and his green pet.

Garza said the bilingual story time was launched online during the pandemic. And, she said, they’re still getting the word out to the public about the transition to in-person story time.

Overall, she said one obstacle to reaching Spanish-speaking families about programs and resources is language.

“Definitely language, you know, language barrier,” she said, “and people knowing what's available here at the library.”

Despite that, she said attendance in the bilingual story time has grown steadily.

“Just to hear in both languages is nice,” Garza said, “and it's just good practice for them and, you know, it's good for school as well.”

Three-year-old Frida Valentina came with her mom to the bilingual story time. And it certainly looked like she was enjoying the story as she sat attentively on the carpet, adding her own commentary throughout the read-aloud.

For more information on library events and resources, click here.

This story references mental health and suicide.

If you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
Call or text 988 Chat at 988lifeline.org
Connect with a trained crisis counselor. 988 is confidential, free, and available 24/7/365.Visit the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for more information at 988lifeline.org

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.