El Dorado Hills Librarian Carolyn Brooks is also a history reenactor and, lately, part-time alchemist, turning straw — teens with too much after-school time on their hands —into gold — a teen council that’s planning after-school service projects and activities.
At 2:20 p.m. on school days librarians hunker down for the first wave of middle schoolers. By 3 p.m. the library teems with teens, some doing homework but most just hanging out and waiting for mom. The library represents a safe place for teens to congregate, and it’s an easier pickup location than the schools.
The kids spread their books on the tables or get on the computers and do what kids do. Other than a few glares from the adults and an occasional shush, the library absorbs the teens and pre-teens with few complaints.
That changed last fall when the boys bathroom was vandalized. It’s now locked for an hour each afternoon.
Rather than resort to corporal punishment Brooks took a more positive approach. As the youth librarian, she wanted to put the teens at the heart of the solution. “We’re trying to move away from behavior management and into more productive activities.”
Brooks applied to the state librarian — did you know we had one of those? — for a “Library and Services Technology” grant, a federal program administered by the state whose goals include expanding services for learning, access to information, educational resources and partnerships to help pay for it all.
In a sometimes tense 30-minute conference call last December, a nervous Brooks, with help from El Dorado County Library Director Jeanne Amos, outlined a plan for the El Dorado Hills Teen Council to oversee a broad range of after-school activities and service projects.
“They asked us if we could do it all for only $11,000,” recalled Brooks. “We assured them we could, and they basically told us to go for it.”
Brooks put the word out that she was forming a teen council, and soon had a couple dozen mostly high school students interested. They held their second formation meeting last week to brainstorm what they hoped to accomplish.
“We’re hoping to create interest in teens to engage their library,” said Oak Ridge sophomore Corbin Gomez before the meeting. “We’ve got this wonderful place here. We think we can put it to better use.”
Quick-witted Oak Ridge sophomore Lily Forbes, 15, put it another way, “Put your controller down and step away from the video game now.”
Similar teen councils around the country typically opt to spend some of the grant money on gaming equipment. But games were barely mentioned in last week’s brainstorm session, which was dominated by ideas for a drop-in homework center, teen activities and community service projects, all organized by a yet-to-be-formalized teen council and subordinate, project-based commissions.
Brooks laid out the facts of the grant and told the teens that some of the grant money would pay to keep the doors open for them, but most of it is “for you to make this world a better place.”
The brainstorm yielded dozens of ideas on how to better serve both middle and high school students. The after-school homework center was deemed a priority.
Umpqua Bank has already dedicated an employee-tutor who’s seeing students on Thursdays.
The community has many retired or unemployed teachers who might be recruited as volunteer tutors, said Brooks.
The library currently hosts well-attended study nights before AP exams, finals and junior projects, complete with tutors and the occasional pizza. The teens see their new homework center as an extension of those programs. Many are veterans of school-based homework programs and had plenty of ideas on how to make it work.
The brainstorm also birthed ideas for college grant and student aid workshops, entrance exam essay skills, resume help and career advice, all in conjunction with related programs at the schools.
The council plans to host library-themed public service projects, such as book purchases for underprivileged schools, reading to shut-ins and the “Dress a Girl” program recently featured in Village Life, which provides simple dresses to girls in third world countries.
The teens suggested recreation activities such as concerts, movie nights, theme parties, craft projects and even cooking classes.
Brooks concluded the brainstorming session by reminding the teens they were embarking on “a momentous thing,” and she hoped they would become a model for similar councils throughout the county.
“These kids know what they want to do and with just a little help, they’ll get it done,” she added. “The teenagers in this community are really incredible.”
Brooks met with El Dorado Hills Community Services District General Manager John Skeel on Friday to discuss collaboration between her teen council and CSD programs, especially the Teen Center.
Librarians Rae Zarghami and Therese Schmidt will serve as liaisons between library staff and the teen council.
The federal grant must be spent by the end of August. Brooks and Gomez have submitted a Vision Coalition grant request for $1,500 to fund the teen council for the balance of the year. Friends of the Library has also jumped on board, promising $2,000 for teen books.