December 19, 2014

Elyria
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Serving Little Free Library priceless for stewards

Jenn Keathley and daughter Mikayla, 3, of Oberlin, look at the Little Free Library for the Oberlin Early Childhood Learning Center at Lorain County JVS on Apr 26. Jenn is the steward for this little library. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Jenn Keathley and daughter Mikayla, 3, of Oberlin, look at the Little Free Library for the Oberlin Early Childhood Learning Center. Jenn is the steward for this little library. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

The 55 Little Free Libraries that will dot Lorain County in the coming weeks are not just a product of the Stocker Foundation’s commitment to supporting literacy — although at its core, the initiative is about that.

The wooden-constructed miniature buildings — replicas of barns, churches and even a lighthouse — speak more to the many people who have stepped up to embrace the ideal that all Lorain County children should have plenty of books to read and be able to find them a stone’s throw away. It doesn’t cost anything to serve as a steward to a Little Free Library but to hear why some people want to care for the libraries is priceless.

Each pays homage perfectly to the vision started by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks.

Bol of Hudson, Wis., built what would eventually be called the first Little Free Library as a memorial tribute to his mother in 2009. Brooks, of Madison, Wis., and Bol put together the ideas and strategies that led to other Little Free Libraries being installed in Minneapolis, Madison and other communities.

Locally, the project is being pushed along by people like 14-year-old Sydney Novak. She got her Girl Scout Gold Award by building two libraries for South Amherst.

Vivian Atkinson, a 55-year-old registered nurse, will steward two libraries — one in Wilkes Villa and another near Prospect Elementary School. She has known about the national Little Free Library program since 2011 and waited eagerly for it to come to Lorain County.

They all have a story about why they love books, were enamored by the Little Free Library initiative and how they will do their part. Each is as unique as the libraries they helped build or will watch over as a steward.

Lynn Novak

For more than 20 years, Lynn Novak has taught high school courses to inmates.

Some are very close to being high school graduates. Others are barely literate. Those are the ones who tug at her heart and make her wonder what could have been different in their lives if they had more chances.

Novak is aiming to break the link between a lack of education and incarceration by stewarding two Little Free Libraries — one near the Grafton Correctional Institution and another by the Grafton Reintegration Center. It is her hope that the books will be a gateway to better lives for children who come to visit their parents and loved ones.

“Literacy is so important,” said the Elyria woman. “It’s not everything, but when you know the statistics — a child who has at least one parent in prison is more likely to become incarcerated as an adult — you know that everything counts toward something.”

Novak boasted Saturday about where some of the most beautifully constructed libraries came from, including a reproduction of a yellow school bus complete with driver in the front window and a red doghouse with a wooden dog — drool included — nearby. They and others were constructed by inmates.

“They know where these books are going, they know the importance, and they are proud they are able to give back to the community,” she said. “Being a part of this project has given them a sense of self-worth and purpose.”

Vivian Atkinson

Vivian Atkinson is a self-proclaimed book worm.

The 55-year-old registered nurse who loves to snuggle up with her young grandson with a good book said she couldn’t imagine her life without reading.

“I have just always loved books, loved reading and going to the library,” said the Elyria woman. “I love everything about libraries and books. The way books smell, the way they feel in your hands — just everything.”

As a home health care nurse, Atkinson crisscrosses the city, caring for patients wherever they may be. Wilkes Villa, the south Elyria housing complex run by the Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority, is no different.

There she has seen families just looking for a way to survive and walked away with no judgment.

But as a book lover, the limited access some of the youngest children had to books always stuck out. Her daughter is the director of the South Elyria Horizon Education Center, so she has heard why more books are needed in the area.

That passion and a willingness to volunteer collided this winter when Atkinson read a newspaper article about the Stocker Foundation’s Little Free Library initiative. She immediately knew she would steward a library.

“I thought it was a good place for a little library to be,” she said. “You don’t need a library card, so they don’t have to worry about fines or hours. They can take home a book anytime they like.”

But in the end, Atkinson became the steward of not one, but two libraries — one at the Horizon center and another near Prospect Elementary School. When asked why she got involved, the wife and mother said it felt like the most natural thing to do.

“Reading is so fundamental. It is the foundation to being a success not just in school, but in the real world, too,” she said. “I’m blessed because I love books. My grandson is blessed because he has parents that are readers. But reading is something every child should have and enjoy.”

Sydney Novak

Sydney Novak laughed a little when asked if she knew her way around power tools before she set off to build two Little Free Libraries.

At 14, she is the youngest steward to work with the Stocker Foundation.

“No, I didn’t know how to use them, but my dad did and he helped a lot,” she said. “I supervised.”

John Novak was quick to add that his eldest daughter did a lot of the building.

“It was a great father-daughter mentoring experience, and she learned a lot,” he said.

Sydney, a Girl Scout with Troop 543 under Troop Leader Sue Pohorence, learned of the Little Free Library initiative through a newspaper article, and it was like a light bulb went off inside her. She was in search of a Girl Scout Gold Award project and is an avid reader.

“It was perfect for me. I’m all about books,” said the young teen. “I thought it was meant to be.”

Sydney got started in June and just last week the culmination of her hard work was the unveiling of two libraries in her community — one at South Amherst Community Park and another in front of the South Amherst Town Hall.

“It was a long process and a lot of work from getting the Village Council to approve to getting the OK from Girl Scouts,” she said. “But I’m really proud of my libraries. They are in places where everyone can use them.”

The libraries have only been up for a little more than a week, but Sydney said she is already replenishing the stock.

“It’s really a relief to know people are actually using it,” she said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.