Friday, April 20, 2018

One Year Later - the difference that media attention has made

It was about this time last year that staff at the McPherson Square Library was dreading the arrival of warm weather and the problems that created over the previous two summers.  Warm weather meant a growing population of drug users coming into the park surrounding the library, setting up camp, and consuming drugs of all kinds, but mostly heroin.  Many of the staff members of North Philadelphia libraries were taking every opportunity to educate themselves on the epidemic and the use of the overdose reversal drug, Narcan.  Overdoses were occurring on the lawn in front of the library.  Several of those overdoses were reversed by our Adult/Teen Librarian, Chera.  Things are very different this year.  I asked Judi Moore, the branch head at McPherson Square to write an update.

One year ago, there was a “heroin village” in McPherson Square Park where drug users from the suburbs and out of state had taken over the park.  They were so entrenched that they even had pets living with them.  There was a tension between the users and the neighborhood.  Rock throwing battles erupted several times.  A library staff member witnessed a mother and her young child being robbed by one of the users. 

Because of strong support from library administration, the drug problem was mostly under control inside the library.  We had extra security guards on board, and the bathroom was closely watched by Project Home bathroom monitors.  We had not had an overdose inside the building in over six months.

Outside was a different story.  Overdoses in the park were daily occurrences.  On one particularly bad day the Recreation Department employee cleaning the park had to call 911 five times.  Our security guard kept watch over the park, and would yell in the door to bring the Narcan when he saw somebody was down. 

But, life went on in the neighborhood and in the library.  We were preparing an outdoor festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of McPherson Square Library.  That is when Mike Newall and his Inquirer column came into our lives and changed everything.  We had been writing emails and complaining about the users taking over the park and getting no help, except from Free Library administration.  Mike Newall came out to write a pleasant column about our anniversary, but instead wrote his column about the users on the lawn and the Narcan trained librarian saving lives.  It went viral.  The media descended.  We learned a lot about how the news media works—mostly about how much they copy one another.  We were covered by CNN, NBC, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Library Journal, People, Readers Digest, and so many more.

So, how have things changed post- media invasion?  Once the spotlight was shining, things improved.  The heroin village was cleared out.   Bike police were stationed in the park.  It was decided that McPherson Park would be made into a safe haven for the neighborhood children.  With that in mind, individuals and groups who wanted to offer assistance to the opioid users were encouraged to provide those services someplace other than the park.  The police designated a location outside the park for feeding the users.  The media blitz also attracted help for the children.  A group called CADEKids volunteered to do support programs with the children so they could air their feelings about seeing drug use and overdoses.  Eagles player Torey Smith asked to come for a visit to read to children and give out free books.  Other Eagles players brought gifts at Christmas.

The park is looking much better without the trash and discarded needles from the heroin village residents.   Before the media discovered us our volunteer was picking up over 100 needles per day in the park.  Now it’s around ten.   The police are a presence in the park and in the library.  We have created a coffee station for them, and they use the library for breaks, shelter in bad weather, and as a place to write reports.  We have bike repair equipment that is part of our Maker Jawn program.  We share that equipment with bike officers.

Does this mean the drug problem is gone?  Unfortunately, no.  The neighborhood is still victimized by the opioid epidemic.  The out-of-towners now hang out at the Allegheny el station, riding up and down all day on the elevator.  You cannot walk anywhere in the neighborhood without being solicited to buy “works” and “loosies.”   It’s a rare day when I walk to the el and don’t see an ambulance.  I don’t know what the solution to this crisis is, but at least things are better in the library and in the park.  

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comments from Judi Moore in Regards to her Humanitarian Award

Several weeks ago I got a surprise email from the Alliance of Community Service Providers stating that they wanted to give me their 2017 Humanitarian of the Year award.  Honestly, my first thought was that they had confused me with our adult/teen librarian Chera Kowalski.  After all, what is more deserving of an award than saving six lives?  But, they said no, they meant me.  The award was for creating a safe haven for the children of McPherson Square, and for addressing issues brought on by the opioid crisis.  Wow, that was amazing, but I felt really uncomfortable about taking all this credit because what we’ve done at McPherson Square is absolutely a group effort.  I decided to accept the award on behalf of our team, and I planned to name everybody in my speech.  However, I then realized that most of the people who shared in the award wouldn’t be present to hear their work being acknowledged, and the people who were present wouldn’t know who all these fine people are.  So, I asked Marion Parkinson if I could hijack her blog to give some credit where credit is overdue.  Let’s call this the Humanitarian Team Award!  Let me introduce the team.
Chera Kowalski – In addition to those six lives she has saved, Chera has been in the forefront of our efforts to raise awareness about the needs of users, the neighborhood, and the children.  Chera is a real fighter, and I am sure we would not be where we are today without her advocacy.  I still think she should have been the one on stage with the mayor to accept the award.
Marion Parkinson – I got credit for all the Narcan training our staff got, but really it was Marion who gave us the okay to do it.  She has also been behind us in everything we did, and she has been our biggest cheerleader.  She is responsible for forming the McPherson Square Action Committee.
Mike Newall – Where would we be without Mike’s columns in the Inquirer?  We’d still be coping with the village of users camping in the park.  The publicity brought on by Mike’s writing inspired Parks & Recreation to provide a play camp and field trips for the children, we got extra police presence, we got financial donations that enabled us to buy an iPad and learning toys for the children, and we got meaningful messages of support from all over the country.  NBC, CNN, NPR, and others jumped on the bandwagon with our story, but Mike was the first and still the best and most accurate.
Sterling Davis – It is true that Chera administered the Narcan, but in most of the cases, it was Sterling, watching over the park, who alerted Chera that she was needed.  Several years ago I nominated Sterling for the Free Library’s Customer Service Award.  He won that award because of his involvement in the McPherson Square community.  For instance, Sterling brought his whole baseball team to help install our playground. 
Karen Vincent, Roseanna Feenan, Orlando Torres, Tashiba Hightower, Aisha Sims, Antonio Daniels, David Roche, Tuesday Chalmers, Kiyumba Case, Chris Torres – These past and present staff members of McPherson Square can tell you that working at the epicenter of a national crisis is not easy.  These people cope with it every day and rise to the need when there is an overdose or a patron under the influence.  They watch over the overdose victims, they protect the children, and they “keep calm and carry on.”  All of our current staff is Narcan trained. 
The Free Library administration – In particular Lynn Williamson, Joe Benford, and Sara Moran put time, effort and funding into helping address this crisis.  They provide us with funding for bathroom monitors and extra security.  Joe participates in the city’s taskforce that addresses the opioid problem.  Honestly, the Free Library stepped up to address the opioid epidemic long before it got national attention, and before other city departments saw the problem.  Lynn always checks in with kind, supportive words whenever we have a crisis, as does T. Kim Robinson.
Ted Hackett – Ted picks up the discarded needles in the park every day.  He doesn’t get paid, and he doesn’t have children using the park.  Ted says he “does it for God.”  In the past, he often got over 100 needles a day.  Now, it is usually less than 20 per day.  We are making progress.
Maria Rivas – Our children can get a free meal at the library all year round.  Most days it is our Lunch Lady Maria passing out the food.  I have given out the lunches often enough to know that it is not an easy job to monitor all the lunchroom shenanigans.  However, this is an important part of our library safe haven.  Maria has been our Lunch Lady for many years, and she and her cousin Carmen Suarez also cook for the homeless each week. 
Bryan Belknap – McPherson has a hugely successful Maker Jawn program due to Bryan’s Pied Piper personality.  He has endless amounts of patience and good humor.  Bryan is also committed to helping the neighborhood cope with the opioid epidemic.
Jose Benitez and Elvis Rosado – We have learned so much from our friends at Prevention Point Philadelphia.  Elvis, of course, as charismatic Narcan trainer, gets much well-deserved credit.  However, Jose is also a font of information and help.  He provided us with our bathroom sharps box and limitless amounts of support.  Both Elvis and Jose maintain a positive attitude despite the overwhelming gravity of the growing overdose crisis.
Lisa Roche-Rodriguez, Patty Codina, & Phyllis Martino – The staff at Impact Services have been our community partners for many years.  They provide us with Santa, the Book Bunny, the Spring Fest, a Halloween parade, karaoke nights, and more.  Life is a lot richer for McPherson children because of the work of Impact Services. 
And, last but certainly not least…
Awilda Ocasio – Awilda was the best friend the children of McPherson Square ever had.  I wanted to talk about Awilda when I accepted the award because so much of what I got credit for was begun by Awilda, but I knew that I would cry if I tried to talk about her.  We lost Awilda this year because she was too busy planning an Easter event for the children to go to the doctor on time.  She died from pneumonia on the day of the Easter bunny event.  Awilda was the one who introduced us to the free lunch program.  She also managed up to 19 play streets each summer.  She would go to extraordinary effort to bring fun to the children in the form of horse rides, bounce houses, water slides, and much more.  The children called her the Karaoke Lady and were devastated by her passing.  The street next to the library was officially renamed Paseo Awilda Ocasio.  Awilda was a friend and inspiration to me and many other people.  I know that she would have been over the moon about all the wonderful things that have happened to her park and library since her passing.   I want to dedicate the Alliance Award to Awilda because she literally gave her life to the neighborhood children she loved so much. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Climbing Wall in a Library?!?!

The Free Library received a grant from the William Penn Foundation and additional funding from the Knight Foundation to create and build play-spaces in several of it's libraries.  One of the libraries chosen was Cecil B. Moore (CBM) in North Philadelphia.  CBM is in the 19121 zip code,  in which statistics show there are many children who have low-literacy skills, live in poverty, and have possibly experienced some type of trauma, whether directly or indirectly.  In other words, these kids deserve something nice.

This project is a collaborative effort by the Free Library of Philadelphia, Digsau Architectural Firm, ErectorSets, Smith Memorial Playground, & Studio Ludo.  

Community engagement sessions were conducted at the library with children and their parents in order to answer the question of what they would really like to see in their library.  The children had many creative ideas, some of which were contradictory.  For each child that said they wanted a quiet space, there was another who wanted a place to really move around.  

With this feedback in mind, we had a design session with representatives from the groups above as well as the library staff.  We considered story times, nooks for hiding in, literacy, space for books, logical problem-solving, and a way for children to get out their wiggles with gross motor movement.  Hence, a climbing wall!

See below for photos of the end product.  Installation is scheduled before the end of this year.  I will follow up with more information on how the children are using the space soon after that.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thoughts on recent events

I started this blog at the end of 2013 because so many people were curious about how we were going about organizing the first cluster for the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Three plus years later, all nine clusters are up and running successfully.  There are some elements of each of the other eight clusters that closely resemble those in North Philadelphia and some elements that are unique to those individual clusters.  That is how it should be.  That is why these smaller service areas were created.

Lately, there has been an incredible amount of curiosity about why and how we came to have librarians and other staff in the North Philadelphia Neighborhood Libraries Cluster that are trained in the use of Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal nasal spray).  I am going to try to address many of the questions I've had posed to me by Free Library staff, people from other libraries, the press, friends, and family. I apologize in advance if this gets long.

1. Why did we do it?  The East Kensington part of Philadelphia has been a mecca for drug dealers/users for decades cycling through whichever drug was popular at the time.  Longtime residents recall seeing fancy cars lined up for blocks in order to score cocaine for their next party.

Heroin use in the neighborhood had been growing exponentially over the last several years.  In the spring and summer of 2016, use in and around the library had become epidemic.  Library staff were sending emails to the police, city council, and library administration begging for help with little or no response.  It was becoming unsafe for the children of the neighborhood to walk through the park to get to the library. The Free Library took two very effective actions. They provided the library with a bathroom monitor who was hired and trained by Project Home, and we were allocated an extra part-time security guard who could patrol outside while our regular security kept an eye on the inside of the library.

Judi Moore, the branch head, had already instituted an organized over-dose drill, which they have had to put into use.

We began to educate ourselves with presentations from Prevention Point Philadelphia, and by doing our own research about the scope of the epidemic as well as the use and effects of Narcan. We determined two factors that would, in our minds, make it allowable for staff to be trained.  1. Narcan is available as a nasal spray. 2. You can do no harm with it.  Even if the person is not over-dosing, Narcan will not hurt them.

At the beginning of 2017, with prospect of another season of warm weather, and not much in the way of tangible progress being made by the city, we started looking at what we could do.  The library staff was strongly asking to be allowed to be trained, and to use Narcan.

2.  First steps. I checked with FLP's administration about getting permission.  Everyone agreed it was necessary, but wanted to have it cleared by the city's legal department, and they wanted a formal policy.  I felt we could not wait.  It would be more detrimental to the staff if someone died from an overdose in or near the library while we were waiting for permission to have the training.

At this point, I decided it was necessary to go ahead and take the risk by arranging the Narcan training with Prevention Point.  I announced it verbally at a cluster meeting.  It was completely voluntary.  I placed no requirements or restrictions on attendance.  The training began before the official start time of a work day. Twenty-eight staff members showed up from five different libraries.

3. Then this happened. Almost immediately afterwards, Chera, the Adult/Teen Librarian, at McPherson was called on to administer the Narcan to someone outside.  (We have had no incidents inside the library since the installation of the bathroom monitors.)  Again and again this happened.

Somehow the word got out, and we met Mike Newall from the Philadelphia Inquirer.  We thought he was coming to interview us about the 100th Anniversary celebration of the branch which was occurring the next week. Apparently, we were wrong.  His column appeared on May 21, and things began to happen.

It could be a happy coincidence, or because of the coverage, but the Mayor's Opioid Task Force finally moved from the talking to the action phase.  Police, cleanups, and supports were all put in place.  Mike's continued coverage has helped to shine a very bright light on the situation in Kensington.  Chera is a local hero, and has now been featured in many stories in print, and on TV. The requests for interviews are still coming in.

If you have any other questions, feel free to put them in the comments.

Thank you for reading this far.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Making a difference in North Philly - one librarian's efforts

Image may contain: tree, plant, outdoor and nature

A bit of background for those not in Philadelphia.  The library above is McPherson Square Library, which is in East Kensington, which is in the epi-center of the heroin epidemic.  

Every year, I ask each of my library managers to fill out a self-reflection questionnaire in preparation for their annual reviews. Below are excerpts from the reflections of Judi Moore, the manager of McPherson Square. When I initially read Judi's comments, I was reminded why it is we do this work.  It was rejuvenating. I've removed some names and added others.  I also removed comments not related to this particular topic.  Comments in parentheses are mine. I've added links to appropriate articles or information where possible.

Describe any new goals, responsibilities, or added challenges you have taken on in 2016
The opioid crisis added new challenges for all of us, particularly with the users in the bathroom. I had to learn a lot about heroin and the behavior of the users.  I’ve been reading a lot and watching documentaries.  I know more about heroin than I ever expected to know.
I agreed to serve on the SAC committee for Willard Elementary School.  This is a school and community liaison group. 
I agreed to try to help Willard School fill the gap of not having a librarian.  I go over to their library to do story programs for their classes.  They did ask me to come over to the school “two or three days a week to run the library as an auxiliary of your library.”  In other words, they wanted me to be their librarian. Obviously, I can’t spend half my time at their school, but you can’t blame them for trying. (Philadelphia School District has a total of eight librarians in their schools.)
Identify what you like most about your job.
I like working with the people in the community, both children and adults.  Even though this neighborhood has a lot of challenges for the residents, I enjoy working in this sort of community.  There is a sense of a real neighborhood and family as we watch children growing up.  Many who have succeeded and moved on to “better” neighborhoods come back to visit with their children.  I like that I have patrons here whom I have known for many years, and that I know many members of their extended families.  I enjoy working with the staff at Impact Services to help make the park a better place.  And, this year we have developed our relationship with Jose Benitez and Elvis Rosado at Prevention Point.  I love that we do the afterschool lunch program provided by the USDA, and the way that MPS staff and other FLP staff help Maria and her cousin feed the homeless.  I love our children.  They are, in many ways, unspoiled and excited to do almost any kind of craft or other project we suggest.  We have our regulars who come in every day, for their daily dose of attention, so we really get to know them and get attached to them.  It is so sweet to just have the time to talk to little people. (McPherson has a regular crowd of 40 - 55 children to come almost every day after school)
I am still a book person at heart.  I enjoy being around books.  I love that I have three ladies who come sit at my desk to chat about new books, classic books, favorite authors, etc.  I have one woman who is joining me in a challenge to read, or at least try, the books on a list of classics we found.  The FLP’s electronic resources excite me.  I love to tell patrons about Hoopla, Zinio, and Overdrive; and to show them how to access those resources.

What are your most significant accomplishments and contributions in 2016.

What accomplishment and achievements are you the proudest of?
I am proud of the way that we have taken on the drug crisis.  (The location talked about in this article is just a few blocks away from the library.  The park surrounding the library is also a very popular spot for drug users.  Over 800 needles were collected in a one month period in late 2016.) With the support of Lynn Williamson, Jose and Elvis, and yourself, we came up with a plan that is working well for the bathroom.  I am proud of the logbook and procedures implemented to help us identify problem patrons.  (There have been numerous overdoses in the public bathroom at the library in the last year.  First they began requiring ID's to use the bathroom.  Then, they added a five minute time limit, which was very hard for the existing staff to monitor.  They now have two part-time bathroom attendants who collect the id, keep the logbook [this has really helped in the case of OD], and set the timer.  The attendants are provided through a partnership with Project Home.)
It took a while and lots of persuasion, but we are now seeing more police in the park and in the library.

What work are you performing that is outside the scope of your current job description?

I am giving out lunches when Maria is absent, and doing the associated weekly paperwork for the lunch program. 
I helped a graduate student from Jefferson hospital find senior citizen contacts in the neighborhood for a project she was doing.  This turned out to be more involved than I anticipated.  However, she rewarded us with medical toys, which the children have adored.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had my ears checked and my blood pressure taken.
I worked with a Cub Scout troop to distribute hats, gloves, and scarves to the neighborhood children.
What job-related goals would you like to accomplish in 2017?
Help our children and adults bridge the technology gap.  Our patrons are still not as tech savvy as they should be in the 21st century.  They know how to play games, but they don’t know how to research, use Word to finish school assignments, download ebooks, etc.

Friday, August 19, 2016

KaWhat!?! - Job Description Trivia

At several points during the last few years, I have heard staff in various positions question whether a particular task was their job, or not.  Things like this are what get my wheels turning.  How can I address this without lecturing (to which no one would listen), or doing some dry, boring activity. Fortunately, my co-worker attended a presentation by the Free Library's New American's committee and they used Kahoot! in order to present some facts and figures about immigration in the U.S. Perfect!

Kahoot! is an online interactive platform that allows you to design a trivia game or lesson that participants use their individual devices in order to answer the questions. (Click on the word Kahoot! to go to the site.) Score is kept and progress is shown on the screen after every questions.

We did the exercise at our last cluster meeting.  Hilarity ensued, and Aha moments occurred.  I do believe a number of people were surprised by some of the answers.  Below is a screen shot of the questions we asked.  All of the answers were validated afterwards in a PowerPoint presentation that directly quoted the job descriptions and the Customer Service Policy, which I informed the group trumps job descriptions every time. To see the slides, click here.  If there are FLP Cluster Leaders, or other staff out there who are interested in using our Kahoot! I believe this link : will take you there.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Patron Bill of Rights - The Final Draft

The staff of North Philadelphia Neighborhood Libraries has, over the course of multiple Cluster meetings, worked on developing the statement below.  This entire process has been described in previous blog posts.  At the June meeting, we took a final look at this document, and realized there was no mention of computers in our initial draft.  Since this is the purpose for the majority of visits at our libraries, it needed to be added.  Currently, all staff agree that this statement addresses all of the primary areas of providing good customer service.  It will be posted in our workrooms, as a reminder to all staff why it should be that we come to work each day.

Patron Bill of Rights
When patrons enter any of the libraries in North Philadelphia, they have the right to expect:
  • Courteous, friendly staff with a willingness to listen
  • Clean, safe, and comfortable building
  • Staff to give accurate information and/or appropriate referrals 
  • Access to working PC's with staff able to give appropriate assistance as needed

We are still in the process of working on a similar statement for staff, and have a draft.  More to come on that later.