I Love My Librarian Award Winner Sherri Ginsberg: Creating a Sanctuary

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As the librarian at Hillsides Education Center, an accredited therapeutic residential and day school offering individualized education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in Pasadena, California, Sherri Ginsberg offers library services to children who have social-emotional, learning, and behavioral challenges.

She also offers library services for children who live in the Residential Treatment Services program located on the same campus, which serves children in the foster care system or who are unable to live at home for other reasons. 

Her efforts to turn the little-used library into a haven for children who have been abused or suffered traumas and losses have justly earned her recognition as one of the recipients of the 2016 I Love My Librarian award.  Ginsberg’s nominator, Alison Bell,  said that since Ginsberg’s arrival in 2006, she has transformed a library that was used only sparingly for after-school programs for the children who lived at Hillsides. 

She said, “A generous donor had just funded a beautiful library for the children in the school and those in residence.  However, the children at the school had no library time at all, and the children who lived at Hillsides were barely using it!”

Ginsberg expanded library services, and tailored them to the strengths and challenges of the students. There was a renewed emphasis on reading for students who were accustomed to moving from one foster care setting to another, frequently switching schools, and were behind by several grades in reading.  She established a Poets Program, convincing local poets to visit the library and read. She also encouraged children to write poetry. 

Bell said, “An off-shoot of this was when recently Sherri discovered a non-profit called “Sing Me a Story.”  During a weeks-long writing session, children write down their personal stories.  This alone is empowering and cathartic, but then their words are given to a professional song writer, who actually takes their words and makes them into songs.  (http://singmeastory.org/partners/hillsides/stories).” 

She also partnered with a Los Angeles non-profit, Young Storytellers Foundation, and persuaded them to work with the children. Each child is assigned a writing mentor and collaborates with the mentor on a short script. Mentors act out the children’s scripts during what is called “The Big Show.”  

Bell said, “For many of the children, this is the most applause and approval they have ever experienced in their lives, and it is hugely enriching to them as budding writers and gives them a much-needed boost of self-esteem.” 

She added, Bell said, “So many of her programs include writing, which is a key way to get children to be able to express emotions they have buried, such as how it felt when their mother abandoned them or their father died, or they had to say goodbye to their siblings who were matched with another foster care setting.  While getting the emotions out is painful, it is ultimately worthwhile as it is part of the healing process and helps children make sense of their often complex, confusing, and trauma-filled lives.”

Ginsberg also reads every book she places in the library, at a rate of 10- 20 a week, and has built the library up to 11, 000 books.  She goes the extra mile to meet her students’ needs, even arranging for a Disney artist to visit the children in response to a child who said he loved Disneyland and wanted to be an animator.

Opening the library to a host of celebrities from various fields, she has brought in some 130 authors to read their works to the children and talk about their works, including Henry Winkler, whom she met at a book signing. She persisted in asking him to talk to the children, even when he told her he was booked for three years.  Evventually, he called and said, “I’m ready.”  His appearance was especially meaningful, since the character of his Hank Zipzer series is dyslexic.

When Marlee Matlin, the Oscar-winning hearing impaired actress, read from one of her books, a deaf student who often tuned out wasn’t really paying attention. However, then, she began to sign, and his entire face lit up. 

Bell said, “The look on his face said how valued, touched, and happy he was to connect with the author in this way.”

In a similar vein, she created a campus-wide reading project revolving around the book “El Deafo” by Cece Bell.  She then coordinated with a local book store, VRomans, which had booked Bell for a visit, to arrange for Bell, who traveled from Virginia, to visit Hillsides.

Her outreach efforts have extended to non-profits offering music and art programs to children.  Children participated in Create a City through  a non-profit called LA Create.  The agency brought in recycled items, which served as the raw material for the children to construct cities. 

Another partnership involved Muse-ique, a Pasadena-based non-profit orchestra, which sends a performing artist to Hillsides at least once a month.  She inspires a love of music by exposing children to opera singers, flutists, pianists and cellists, as well as ballet dancers, hip-hop rappers and tap dancers.  They have heard an “American Idol” finalist sing and had an opportunity to meet Kevin McHale from “Glee.”

When she took over the library, her job description ran thus: “Run a reading program and provide crafts for after-school kids.”

She has more than lived up to that mission, opening up the library to Reading Rocks, an intensive one-on-one reading program for children in the school reading below grade level. The goal is to “make up for lost time,” aiming for gains of up to three grade levels in decoding, fluency and comprehension within a given school year. 

In 2013-2014, there were 20 students in the program, and 15 improved their reading fluency by one grade, and five by two grades.  In 2014-2015  there were 36 children in the program; 27 improved by one grade, and nine by two.  In 2015-2016, there were 36 students in the program; 22 improved by one grade, 10 by two grades, and four by three grade levels.

Bell said, “Sherri has turned the job description of ‘librarian’ on its head because her job goes way beyond just books to planning cultural, artistic, and emotionally healing experiences for the children from almost every walk of life. She never stops in her effort to bring in just one more artist, one more author, or one more musician who might be the very person a child in crisis needs to make it through that day and through life.”

The I Love My Librarian Award is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, The New York Times, and the New York Public Library. The award is administered by the American Library Association.

Read more about the award and other 2016 winners at www.ilovelibraries.org/lovemylibrarian.

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