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Little libraries lend literacy to Petaluma apartments

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The national phenomenon of Free Little Libraries, which has permeated all 50 states and 80 countries worldwide with community-based honor system book lending, is now fully entrenched in Petaluma.

In addition to the 15 already in existence, five new little libraries have been added to each Burbank Housing community in Petaluma in an attempt to educate families about the correlation between reading to children and long term health.

The concept of adopting the Free Little Libraries was spearheaded by the Community Health Initiative of the Petaluma Area, a collaborative formed by the Petaluma Health Care District. CHIPA is designed to improve the wellness of the community by assessing the social determinants of health that derive from factors like housing, transportation, education, food access and mental health.

“We bring together folks from all over the community to set goals and tackle strategies for our greatest health priorities,” said Director of Community Health Erin Hawkins.

CHIPA partnered with Burbank Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer with 63 properties containing 4,000 units and 10,000 residents across Sonoma County. For over 38 years, they have served low-income individuals and families by providing a solution to affordable housing in the Bay Area.

The Free Little Libraries are installed at all five Petaluma locations including Old Elm, Round Walk, Logan Place, Madrone and Park Lane apartments. In order to receive feedback from the residents, CHIPA created surveys and hung them on approximately 350 doors in both English and Spanish, posing questions about age range and language preference.

Properties like Old Elm and Logan Place have nearly 100 school-age kids living at them, according to Director of Resident Services Lauren Taylor.

“The Little Free Libraries offer a great opportunity for a significant number of our communities’ children to access more books and support early childhood literacy,” Taylor said. “It also promotes a sense of community and social connection through the ‘place one, take one’ concept behind them.”

In order to fund the Free Little Libraries, CHIPA applied for the iRead Competitive Grant Program through the Community Foundation of Sonoma County. The iRead program developed from a large public awareness campaign about the correlation between early literacy and longterm health.

Roughly 300 different families were asked about the obstacles they face in terms of reading to their children. The most common responses were access to reading materials, time, and lack of awareness of the importance.

“The overarching goal of the program is defined as helping parents become their child’s first teacher,” said Karin Demarest, vice president of programs at the Community Foundation.

CHIPA was one of 20 applicants in last year’s grant cycle, and one of 10 to be funded.

“They stood out because it was a collaborative project in communities who potentially wouldn’t have access, and creating access is important,” Demarest said. “We are honored to be able to support the program.”

Once CHIPA secured funding from the grant, they partnered with the Petaluma Regional Library in search of book donations. With assistance from Cradle to Career Work Group, Petaluma People Services Center and Friends of the Library, CHIPA received several boxes of donated books in both English and Spanish.

“Kids who see their parents or other adults in their life read are more likely to find it a positive and addictive activity,” said Michelle Santamaria, a children’s librarian for Petaluma involved in the Cradle to Career Work Group. “Most importantly, reading gives you information and information gives you power.”

Another collaborative force on the project was Mentor Me, a nonprofit founded in Petaluma that helps at-risk youth achieve success in school and in life by pairing students with an adult mentor for one-on-one sessions on a weekly basis. The program supports youth from elementary school to high school, with some including Mentor Centers on campus.

Hawkins reached out to Mentor Me looking for help in terms of painting and installing.

“It just clicked,” said longtime mentor Kent Smith.

He and his mentees worked alongside CHIPA by constructing, installing and painting the Free Little Libraries with resources made possible by donations from Friedman’s Home Improvement and Peterson’s Paint.

“It’s like magic, you can’t put your finger on it, but it works. It gives kids confidence,” Smith said of Mentor Me.

The mentees were taught how to use drills and tools, and even received some money set aside from the iRead grant. The ultimate vision for the project is to provide communities potentially lacking resources with convenient access to quality reading materials.

The installations will remain at the five locations for the foreseeable future and serve the direct community as well as the Petaluma community at large.