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Rotary Club of Bay City
Rotary's "Major Project"
Draws Teens to Libraries and Reading
by Linda Heemstra

Linda Heemstra
Joined 1989
For five years, 1998 - 2003, the Bay City Rotary Club funded a teenage reading program that became a model for other libraries. More teens participated in library programs in Bay County than in any other library in the state, and in 2002 Linda Smith of the Bay County Library System received recognition as Michigan's Outstanding Young Adult Librarian of the Year.

Here's how the program developed. In the mid 1990's, the Rotary Club of Bay City faced a pleasant dilemma - what to do with a $65,000 fund balance! The membership determined to use it for something that would improve the quality of life and make a significant difference in the community. Deciding the focus of that effort required great club leadership, organization, desire and patience. An intensive strategic planning process, involving every Rotarian, ultimately led to the creation of a Major Projects Committee chaired by Jerome Yantz.

The Major Projects Committee guided membership through a process that defined the purpose to be served by such a project, then developed a procedure for selecting the project - one that could change lives for the better in Bay County. Rotarians participated in individual surveys, luncheon table discussions, balloting, service organization presentations, and more balloting. More than a year after the process began; club members determined they wanted to focus on Youth, Education and Vocation.

The Major Projects Committee and entire membership worked to identify the most critical needs within the focus areas. They held brainstorming meetings with high school students and sought project applications. A 17-member committee evaluated proposals from 30 organizations and in 1997 made a recommendation to endorse a Young Adult Outreach Librarian project proposed by the Bay County Library System.

"The club looked for a project that would reach as many teenagers as possible - one that would make an impact on our youth. We wanted to make sure we met the need, and we really wanted to have something that was different," said Jerome Yantz. He added that the club was particularly struck by the fact that there was a 60 percent decrease in Summer Reading Program participation as Bay County youth move from sixth to seventh grade, with an even greater decline in later teen years. This project was designed to reverse the trend.

The exciting partnership between Rotary and the Library reached over 10,000 teens throughout the county. Its goal was to identify and meet teen needs for literacy, information, research skills, pleasure reading and cultural opportunities - to attract more teens to the joy of reading and the excitement of libraries.

Rotary's generous support for the Young Adult Outreach Librarian project involved a club commitment of $207,598 over a five-year period. A major undertaking, indeed! Contributions covered salary and benefits of the librarian, as well as $5,000 each year toward the purchase of books, magazines, CD's, videos and illustrated novels of interest to teens.

In 1998, this new and innovative library program was one of only a handful across the country which exclusively focused on serving young adults, ages 12-18. From the moment the YAOL job was created and Linda Smith was hired, she dedicated herself to promoting teens' interest and involvement with reading and libraries. One of her first projects was to establish a Teen Advisory Board, a group of twelve young people representing all school districts. They met monthly to plan and evaluate programs and to offer suggestions for library collection development.

The enthusiastic Teen Advisory Board created a remarkable array of library activities for Bay County's youth, and teens responded in record numbers. Over the course of five years, participation in the teen Summer Reading Program grew from 649 in 1997 to 1,334 in 2003 - a stunning 105% growth. Meanwhile, attendance at special library programs tripled. In 2003 alone, more than 2,754 teens attended 113 different library programs held throughout the school year. Teens now look to the library for book talks and poetry readings, book discussion clubs such as "Pizza and Pages," teen mystery nights, scavenger hunts using reference skills, Harry Potter programs, beach parties, author visits, yo-yo clinics, special computer classes, community volunteer efforts, and mentoring younger children.

Annually, the teen librarian visited each middle school and made presentations to over 1,000 students. In the classroom she promoted reading and the Summer Reading Program, presented energetic book talks, helped students sign up for a library card, gathered ideas for new library materials and programs, and always talked about the Rotary Club's generous support that made the teen program possible.

The teen library program promoted opportunities for all teens, from the at-risk group to the high-achievers. A group of teens from a local juvenile detention facility came to the library regularly to hear brief book talks, find materials of interest, and attend computer classes. On the spectrum's other end, a tutoring center was organized in which honor society students volunteered three hours a week at the library to assist middle and high school students with math and other subjects.

Bay County teens offered suggestions for the Teen Web Page found on the library's web site . A dynamic homework center supports area school assignments and links to events of interest to young adults such as sports, careers, entertainment, news and health issues, as well as book reviews by Bay County teens. The Homework Center has over 1,000 links on a variety of school related subjects.

This program focused on the rights of teens to help make decisions that affect them. Through Linda Smith's encouragement and perseverance, teens from the around the state now join annually with librarians to read nominees and vote for Michigan's Best Book of the Year for Young Adults. She also arranged for a focus group of teens in Bay County to meet with library building consultants. Teens helped plan and design the teen rooms for all five new and renovated/expanded library buildings. Their input will create inviting library spaces for generations of teens to come.

The Rotary Club of Bay City truly made a positive difference in the lives of teens throughout Bay County and the state.