When she was a child, Morgan Miller remembers her local library as the place she would run to when she needed to escape an abusive home.
“That was my safe space. It always has been,” she said. “The library is a safe place for anyone to be.”
And sometimes the library brings that safe place directly to people like Morgan. The 23-year-old was a resident of the Area Substance Abuse Council’s Heart of Iowa program, which supports pregnant women and mothers in substance abuse recovery. Their children can live with them at the facility while they complete treatment and get back on their feet.
The library began partnering with Heart of Iowa in June to provide weekly computer, internet, and information access. The outreach started as part of a workforce development grant from the American Rescue Plan Grant Program for Museums and Libraries in 2022, and has continued as part of the library’s regular programming after staff saw its impact.
Each Thursday, Community Engagement Librarian Meredith Crawford and Event Specialist Kami Zbanek-Hill bring laptops, a mobile printer, and other resources to the center. Their focus quickly expanded beyond resume and job application assistance once they realized the breadth of the women’s needs.
They do plenty of resume help, but they also make library cards, give the women a chance to check their email, help them research doctors and daycares, and apply for benefits or other assistance. One week they helped a woman file for custody of her children.
Ericka Blake, 40, said she had never been a library user before meeting with Meredith and Kami at Heart of Iowa. Now she has a library card and regularly visits both the Downtown and Ladd libraries, where she goes for job search assistance at the Opportunity Center and utilizes the Urban Dreams food pantry. Meredith also helped her research therapy options for her daughter during one of the outreach sessions.
“It kind of changed my life knowing there are people out there who really do care and will help you get on your feet,” she said.
Sometimes the work is as simple as bringing the women books they had put on hold. Heart of Iowa has no campus library for residents, and sometimes they just want the latest mystery or fantasy novel to take their minds off the world for a bit.
“We’re told reading can be a coping skill,” one woman said as she searched the library’s online catalog for her favorite authors. “This makes that possible.”
“As a librarian, it really hits on meeting people where they’re at in the community and being able to extend our services beyond the barriers of our building,” Crawford said.
Suzie Gossman has been a resident at Heart of Iowa twice. The last time she was there, before the library outreach started, she said there was only one computer available for residents, and access was limited to 10 minutes at a time because of demand. That wasn’t enough time to do much, especially complicated tasks like writing a resume.
“Before this, it was really hard to get jobs, it was really hard to do things,” she said. “Having this makes a huge difference.”
Crawford said often the women will jump in to help each other, offering their own knowledge and skills when one of them has a question.
“This group of women is working so hard. We bring resources and our box of knowledge, but really these women show each other how to do things. It becomes a space where patient driven, peer-centered work happens,” she said.
“We’re not doing anything for them, they’re doing it on their own, with our support, and each other’s support,” she said.
Miller, meanwhile, was focused on her future. During a library outreach day in January, she was excited - a week earlier she’d used the library session to fill out job applications, and now she was preparing for an interview.
She is determined to create a good life for her children, ages 1, 2, and 3. With Crawford and Zbanek-Hill’s help she had also signed her kids up for free books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. When she reached the point in treatment where she could leave the facility, one of the first things she did was take them to Ladd Library.
She proudly showed the books she’d selected while there: a financial literacy book, a book about bipolar disorder, and a book of poetry.
“I believe if you don’t read, how else are you going to expand your horizons?” she said. “The library is where I can learn new skills.”
The poetry was not to learn, but for joy – she’s a poet and writer herself. And at the library, she could embrace that part of her life once more.
“I walked into the library, and I was just home,” she said.
This article is from the spring 2023 issue of OPEN+ magazine. Find the magazine at the Downtown or Ladd libraries or the library drop boxes of area Hy-Vees, or read the digital version here.