District, community work to restore heat to volunteer-run library at Mt. Airy school

 Neighborhood volunteers help sort, classify and label incoming book donations. (Jana Shea/for NewsWorks, file)

Neighborhood volunteers help sort, classify and label incoming book donations. (Jana Shea/for NewsWorks, file)

Houston Elementary’s volunteer-run library has grown by at least an additional 500 books since it first opened last year, according to Elayne Blender, a community member who leads the force behind the library. 

Adult volunteers — who include grandparents, parents, neighbors and caring community members — are now working with administration and the School District of Philadelphia to make sure students have access to the library no matter the temperature outside. 

After being non-operational for two years, the library reopened last year thanks to the community-led effort. But students couldn’t have regular access to the books until May because there was no heat in the room. It was a daily decision as to whether students should be brought in. 

“An adult would walk in and say, ‘Nope, it’s way too cold,'” says Carla Hagan, president of Houston’s Home and School Association. 

The district has no official policy on the minimum temperature a room has to be for students to use it, according to district spokeswoman Raven Hill. 

Hill says the district “is working to address the problem” at Houston’s library.

Blender says the district has already implemented a “temporary fix” and with the temperature dropping daily, is hopeful a permanent one is on its way.

“We were patient last year. There are some things that are bare minimum. Heat is a bare minimum no matter what funding issues there are,” she says.

Molly Hylton, the parent of a first-grader at Houston, volunteers on Friday afternoons. Her son’s first day in the school’s library was last week. 

“His teacher is already saying it’s getting cold in the room,” she says. “It will leave us in a real bind if it can’t be fixed.”

How it works

Houston is one of few schools in the Northwest with a functioning library. It’s open for three half-days throughout the week with each day allotted to certain grades. Volunteers sign up for shifts to help students navigate the library, conduct research, check out books and create programming around what they are learning in the classroom.

Local branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia donate books to help fill the shelves. So do nearby private schools like Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and Germantown Academy.

“I feel embarrassed that our kids have to get second-hand things, but at least they are getting them,” says Blender, who is now retired and had two children attend Houston in the past.  

Going forward, Blender hopes to purchase a computer for the library to help teach the older kids research skills.

Sometimes, she worries there is only so much the group can do.

“We cannot take the place a trained librarian who knows what they are doing. We are just trying to be a Band-Aid.”

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