By Kevin Kelley
Westlake Porter Public Library had been offering programs and services for persons with special needs since before Andrew Mangels became director in 2006. But the library’s emphasis on those services has increased during the past year or so.
Just over a year ago, the library successfully applied to the Cleveland Foundation for $23,000 ingrant money to fund programs for children with developmental disabilities. The effort was in partnership with Connecting for Kids, a local organization for parents who have concerns about their child’s development.
Mangels, who has taken a personal interest in the library’s special needs services, said he wants special needs children and their families to see Porter as a place they can feel respected, not judged.
“We want everyone to feel welcome at the library,” said Mangels, who serves on the board of directors of Connecting for Kids.
He credits his sister Amy, a social worker who has experience with children with autism, with making him aware of the issues special needs children and their families face.
Mangels also noted that programming for special needs children is a real need in the community. According to the Westlake City Schools, about 13.5 percent of their students – around 540 – have special needs.
Sarah Rintamaki, a Westlake resident who founded Connecting for Kids after her two children experienced developmental delays, said the collaboration between her organization and Porter Library is unique.
“(Special needs programming) is not an afterthought,” Rintamaki said of Porter’s efforts. “It’s not just one program every four months.”
The traditional model of a library has been one of a quiet place to study. Perhaps not a place for a child with developmental problems who might be disruptive.
But, Rintamaki said, library programming for special needs children opens up a whole new world of learning and socializing for them.
Porter’s goal of offering services to families with special needs was underscored by the hiring in January of Rebecca Shook. Sixty percent of Shook’s time working at Porter will be devoted to special needs services and programming, hence her title of special needs resource librarian.
A native of Kalamazoo, Mich., Shook graduated from Miami University with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and taught kindergarten for three years. Her classroom included children with special needs. She later received a master’s of science and information degree from the University of Michigan. Before coming to Porter, she worked at Marvin Memorial Library in Shelby, Ohio.
Shook’s duties will include planning programming for special needs children and their families, as well as serving as the library’s liaison with the special needs community, including Connecting for Kids.
In April, Shook will restart Porter’s “sensory storytime program” for special needs children. It’s like the usual storytime programs libraries offer children, but with greater interaction, such as passing objects around so children can touch and feel them.
Another program starting in April will be Meet-Up Mondays, gatherings at which special needs kids ages 7 to 11 can socialize through interactive games.
Neither Shook nor Porter are establishing any criteria to define which child has a developmental issue and which doesn’t.
“The child does not need a diagnosis to participate,” Mangels explained.
“If the child is not typically developing, they’re invited,” Shook added.
Porter also plans programs for adults with developmental difficulties. On March 20, adults from United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland and Our Lady of the Wayside are coming to Porter for an afternoon of games, including a round on the library’s portable minigolf course.
Another of Shook’s duties, one that Rintamaki thinks is key, is to curate Porter’s collection of books and DVDs on topics such as autism and other developmental difficulties.
“It’s a godsend for these families,” Rintamaki said of the 200-plus items now in the collection.
Porter’s programming for special needs services this year will be funded in part by a second grant from the Cleveland Foundation for $20,000.