I Love My Librarian winner Olga Cardenas: Breaking Barriers to Literacy

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by Steve Zalusky

At the Stanislaus County Library in Modesto, California, Olga Cardenas makes it her mission to deliver literacy programs, regardless of language or economic barriers.

It is why she received a 2016 I Love My Librarian Award.  Blessed with the ability to communicate in English and Spanish, she reaches families in Stanislaus County burdened with extreme poverty and facing cultural barriers.  Cardenas, who was nominated by the Friends of the Modesto Library,  holds the key these families need to unlock the potential for unlimited opportunities for their children.

As the Youth Services Outreach Librarian, she reaches out to parents in their communities, their workplaces and their houses of worship. Her outreach efforts have also led her to forge partnerships between the library and businesses, service organizations and schools.

She visited the Frantz Nursery, for example, telling employees about the importance of reading to children and offered tips for how to incorporate more reading in the home. As a result, 20 employees obtained their first library card, more than 100 employees received a free new book and also a brochure reinforcing the message about the importance of talking, singing and reading. Cardenas was able to see the fruit of her labor when she later presented at Moon Elementary’s Kindergarten registration. A parent told her,  “I already have a library card and I use it. You came to my work - I work at Frantz Nursery.”

In 2005 she asked Friends of the Modesto Library to find funding for Dia de los Ninos / Libros at the Modesto Library. Over the past decade, it has become a greatly anticipated annual event. As she transitioned to her new position as outreach librarian, she made her that each of the 13 library branches held Dia events.

At one Dia celebration at Burbank School, she coordinated the celebration to coincide with the school’s OpenHouse and brought together multiple partners, who worked together like a well oiled machine to make the event a success. Modesto City Schools sent out a phone invitation alerting families of the event, while the Modesto fire Department barbecued and served meals to families and the Burbank Paradise Fire Protection District brought a fire engine for children to explore. More than 500 gently used books were given to Burbank children that Boy Scouts had collected. Also. Casa Guanajuato hosted a professional story teller. The library also provided a science activity and information about upcoming workshops and events.

One 27-year veteran Burbank teacher gave a glowing review, saying that "this was the best attended Open House I can ever remember. I was so happy families came out to see their children's work and classroom!" A Burbank parent also said that "Open House was great this year. There were so many things to do and such little time. My family had a blast!"

Through Cardenas' introduction of Dia into the Modesto Library, an average of 200 - 300 books a year were gifted as permanent possessions to Modesto area children in each of the last 10 years. Dia has also highlighted the need for attention to early literacy deficiencies in the community.

It is just one example of how she has taken literacy to the community.  Jonaca Driscoll, an officer of the Friends of the Library, noted in the nomination that Cardenas started a book club at Modesto’s Juvenile Hall and Juvenile Commitment Center, targeting the younger and older male population.

Driscoll said, “It wasn’t long before word started to leak out about how popular and successful these book clubs were, how thrilled the boys were to have their ideas and opinions considered. I’m a retired teacher, who misses teaching to some extent, so last spring I asked Olga if she needed some help at juvenile hall.”

She said the Modesto’s Juvenile Hall requested that Driscoll and Cardenas introduce two books a month now, rather than the customary one.  “So I will be doing one book on my own and Olga will do the other. It is very exciting and rewarding to be back in the ‘teaching game,’ thanks to Olga!”

Another member of the Friends, Anne Britton, said, “Olga exemplifies the institutional attitude that consistently treats me as a full member of the team, even though I’m a volunteer and not a paid full time employee. Her inclusion of me in discussions, celebrations, disappointments and triumphs that come with the ups and downs of library financing has, quite simply, held my purpose in life steady -- getting children and books together.”

Her ambassadorship has extended to every aspect of the community. She has offered Story Time in parks, at doctor's offices and in homes for children who have no home. She has brought book clubs to teens who are currently incarcerated and has checked out books and issued library cards at the local Women, Infant and Children office.

Wherever she goes, she carries the message of inclusion, community and open access to information with her.

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. Nominations for the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award will be open June 5 - September 18.

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