WILLIAMSBURG — Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) is committed to offering people outside the walls of the library the same experiences and opportunities that are offered inside the library, including youths in the local juvenile detention facility.
Librarians from WRL visit the Merrimac Juvenile Detention Center on a monthly basis to provide materials and programming to the facility’s teen residents.
Betsy Fowler, WRL director, said that the program reflects the library’s mission to expand outreach to underserved populations.
“We’re really focused on trying to open new doors for people,” Fowler said. “We want them to know the library is here, and the library can help people with information and technology.”
WRL’s Teen Services Librarian Rachael Nelson coordinates the library’s visits to the Center and collects book donations for its residents.
“There was sort of an informal donation arrangement that was happening years ago,” Nelson said. “And it was really during COVID[-19] when we decided to put into place a procedure where we would make a monthly delivery of donations.”
The donations include books that Dave Scanlon, the Center’s librarian and English teacher, believe would be of most interest to the young adult students at Merrimac.
The library has also provided hands-on learning and programming, including book talks, Nintendo Labo kits and Virtual Reality goggles.
“The reaction from the kids has been really positive,” Nelson said. “It’s really rewarding to see them engage with something that’s different in their environment.”
The library also included a virtual author visit from local author Pamela Harris, who has written a mystery novel set in Newport News, and provided the students with copies of the book.
“When we did the author visit, what was really interesting was one of the girls in the class actually has a published paperback on Amazon which is exciting, and another girl journals heavily and is contemplating writing a book,” Nelson said. “And it was really a unique experience that these two students who happened to be interested in writing themselves were able to connect with a real author from the area with some of the similar local experiences they had.”
Nelson noted a special moment when one of the students said to the author, “There are a lot of people in here who have the same stories as me, why would it matter if I wrote mine?'”
Harris answered, “Because it’s your story, it’s how you tell your story. And that is going to be different than everybody else’s story.”
“I just think that little vote of confidence and that little connection there with a writer who validated the work that they were putting into their writing, that was a really special thing,” Nelson said.
Fowler said that the outreach program has peaked the teens’ interest in the library.
“I’ve heard from parents over the years in libraries where I’ve worked how the first time their children started reading was when they were in a juvenile detention center,” Fowler said. “It really can change the trajectory of a young life if they are exposed to different ideas, different role models, and opportunities.”
WRL’s goal is to build individual relationships with the teens so that they have a sense of comfort with the people who work at the library.
“We want them to have a happy experience because our mission is to let them know that the library is a friendly, supportive place with lots of resources,” Nelson said. “So hopefully, when they’re done with their residency, they’ll come and see us.”