Deborah Dixon studied fine arts at New World School of the Arts, but technology is her new passion.
A couple of summers ago, Dixon was reading at the North Dade Regional Library when she saw a group of teens hanging out in the technology center who were producing videos and mixing music.
“I didn’t know anybody there,” Dixon said, “but I wanted to be a part of it.”
Through YOUmedia Miami, a digital media education program run out of the North Dade Regional in Miami Gardens, she helped produce an anti-bullying video and a song titled Stronger, encouraging teens to be more confident.
“When I started at YOUmedia, it was just for fun, but the program helped me realize what I really want to do,” said Dixon, 18, who garnered $68,000 in scholarships to study graphic design at the Kansas City Art Institute. She will start there in August.
As Dixon discovered, libraries aren’t just for reading anymore. People go to their local branches to learn how to expand their business, navigate government red tape, become master gardeners, produce videos or calibrate their computer skills. Kids can get free lunches, learn a language or if they’re visually impaired, receive free audio books.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed a county budget last week that would include $45 million for the libraries, down from $50 million. The result? One library, the California Club branch, would close, but a new one under construction, the Northeast branch, would open. Another eight — West Dade, West Kendall, South Dade, North Dade, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Northeast and Homestead — would start opening on Sundays. In total, 94 full-time employees would lose their jobs, but more part-timers would be hired.
The Miami-Dade Public Library System has deep roots in the community, beginning with the opening of the Lemon City Reading Room in 1894 and the Cocoanut Grove Reading Room in 1895. The first library, the Coconut Grove Library, opened in 1901, followed by the Lemon City Library (now part of Little Haiti) in 1902. Today, 49 branches serve about 2.5 million people and lend close to 7 million books and other materials a year.
FREE LUNCH PROGRAM
When school is out, boredom sets in. And when kids are bored, they get hungry, often turning to junk food. But at 24 branches, kids can enjoy sandwiches, fruits, vegetables and a free book, courtesy of Sisters for Abundant Living. The nonprofit partners with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the library system to provide free lunch for kids 18 and younger until Aug. 8.
“We want to ensure children have equal access to healthy meals and literacy programs,” said Kendra Bulluck-Major, executive director of the Sisters for Abundant Living.
The libraries serve about 700 meals daily, usually in communities where students receive free or reduced lunches during the school year.
“Last year, we served free lunch at every library in the county. We scaled back this year because some libraries didn’t have as much of a need for the program,” Bulluck-Major said.
Virginia Jacko started losing her vision to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that damages the retina, in the late 1990s. By 2005, she was blind. Jacko learned to read Braille at Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization she now heads.
Through Talking Books, a library program operating out of North Dade Regional, she receives Braille and audio books and magazines in the mail. She enjoys The Atlantic and The Economist and is reading Wilson by A. Scott Berg.
Talking Books is a free outreach service of the library system. The program circulated 121,000 audio and Braille books and helped about 60,000 people last year, according to Carmen Centeno, a library services specialist with the county.
“Talking Books is a huge asset to the Miami-Dade library system and a tremendous service,” Jacko said.
Elroy Phillips transformed his graphic design business with the help of YOUmedia Miami at the North Dade Regional Library. He started his company, Perfection Design Studios, in 2010.
Phillips, 25, learned to use software programs like InDesign and Photoshop, which helped him expand his business and work with other designers he met there. Earlier this year, he launched a second business, Perfection Design Central, to focus on fashion, architectural and sound design.
“The library and YOUmedia helped me grow the company and learn new things about design,” Phillips said. “Everything opened up and the company has completely changed.”
Thanks to an $800,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the library transformed its periodicals room into a media center equipped with music, film and photography equipment, computers and professional-grade editing software.
Since it began in February 2012, YOUmedia has enrolled more than 700 teenagers. One of them was Winnie Jean-Enard, who moved to Miami from Haiti in 2010 and spent most of her free time in the library while in high school.
“It was my safe place,” said Jean-Enard, now 21.
Marlon Moore, YOUmedia’s coordinator, helped her apply to college and complete financial aid forms. As a result, she received $20,000 in scholarships and grants from St. Leo University, a Catholic university near Tampa. She is now a junior double-majoring in history and philosophy and writes for her university’s newspaper.
“Had it not been for YOUmedia and Mr. Moore, I would not be on the path I am on today,” Jean-Enard said. “Mr. Moore helped me when I felt lost about my future.”
Since 1979, the Florida Master Gardener Program, run through the the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences division, has made it a priority to educate gardeners about their home gardens and it is using the libraries to spread the word.
Jennifer Shipley, the branch supervisor at the Miami Beach Regional Library, became a master gardener after taking the program at the county’s Homestead extension office.
“There’s about 200 of us master gardeners out there in Miami-Dade County,” she said. “We support that in our programming, and you will see there are a series of yard and gardening workshops. So you can come to the library, and learn how to take care of your plants as well.”
The Master Gardener Program has a rigorous set of program requirements, said Adrian Hunsberger, Urban Horticulture and Master Gardener Coordinator at UF/IFAS Miami-Dade County Extension.
“In order to become a master gardener, you need to complete 70 hours of classroom training and pass a final exam,” Hunsberger said. The program charges only for the textbooks; master gardeners make up for the free tuition by volunteering their time.
LEARNING TO READ IN ENGLISH, SPANISH
Music and laughter fill the air at West Kendall Regional Library on Thursday mornings. Recently, 55 children, mainly preschoolers, gathered for “Reading Ready Preschool Storytime.”
Sitting with their legs crossed, parents and kids listened as two librarians read Big Frog Can’t Fit In and sang Five Little Monkeys. Viviana Nodarse, 25, and her 2-year-old son, Ethan, were among them.
“It has helped him learn,” Nodarse said. “He has peer interaction with other kids and is introduced to the benefits of language so that when he gets to school he knows about books, stories and songs.”
The program is one of several offered throughout the summer for children, ranging from preschoolers to teens.
“We are here to encourage people and to make them want to read,” said Pamela Hogue, assistant manager at the branch. “Because if you have that love of reading it will be with you forever and you will always know how to find out things.”
Hogue, who’s been at Kendall Regional for more than 10 years, helps coordinate activities for the surrounding Hispanic neighborhood, including “Hora de los Cuentos,” which teaches children Spanish. It meets from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays.
“We read books and sing typical Spanish songs like Diez Elefants, A La Rueda Rueda de Pan y Canela and El Barquito Chiquitito,’’ librarian Manuel Pasos said. “We teach them basic reading skills and motor skills. Because they are preschool kids we also teach them how to socialize with other kids their age.”
TACKLING SOCIAL ISSUES
Bryant Wade Capley, the branch manager at Little River and librarian of seven years, views his library as a place to help people navigate complex governmental mazes.
“A lot of adults in this neighborhood need computers for things like food stamps, Social Security or immigration,” Capley said. “They seem petty to someone who hasn’t dealt with the problem, but wait until it’s you and you can’t find someone to help.”
Capley shared a story about a patron who needed legal advice. “I’m not a lawyer nor am I qualified to give legal counsel, but I can point you in the right direction. And I did.”
“We can definitely make life better,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand that.”