Library Programs Tailored for a Tribal Community

Sandy Tharp-Thee is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.

Sandy Tharp-Thee

In August of 2009, I was a new tribal librarian and soon learned I had no programs, no budget, no mission statement, no online resources, no circulation system, and no manual. The library had a strong collection of books and materials about the Ioway and Native Americans but only about 150 well-loved children’s books.  It also had two big red chairs. One of them had a sign taped on it that said, “Do not sit on this. It is broken.” 

I first addressed the need to get books into the hands of children and youth. I called local thrift stores and received over 13 boxes of children’s books. Storytime and Lapsit programs were created.  “Read, Get Wacky, Go Feather,” a youth reading program with food coupons provided by the local Sonic Drive-In (food helps!), and a Summer Reading Program with the Oklahoma Department of Libraries—our new best friends-- quickly followed.  Many of the youth did not have books at home. Working with the Oklahoma Department of Libraries and First Book, I was able to help them start home libraries. Several free book fairs were held at our library, and we began an ongoing free book shelf.  An American Library Association Bookshelf and a Libri Foundation Grant were received, and, for the first time, the library collection included brand new books for the youth to check out.

I found resources for other children and youth programs. “Writers in the Wind” is our adult writers’ group that meets once a month at the library.  The “Writers” are creative people and are willing to share by reading or singing to children and giving book talks.  One of the writers shared her therapy dog with us, and words cannot begin to express the impact on the children.  The library works closely with the Johnson O’Malley program for Native youth to provide afterschool tutoring.  A “Moving Library” was created with Four Winds Child Development Center to provide them with board books, and I created “Fun in a Sack,” an early literacy bag for families and teachers, with books, puzzles, and activities.  Other library programs include cultural activities, field trips, and gardening.  The Iowa Tribe has an Eagle Aviary, where injured eagles are rehabilitated and fishing for the eagles is another very popular program and good for the eagles.

A community outreach program for homebound elders was developed with our Title VI (Seniors) funding. It delivers more than thirty meals a day to homebound elders.  These elders may now request books and materials delivered with their meals.  At one time the library only had one large print book.  A large-print book distributor heard our story and donated 22 large print books.  An IMLS Native American Basic Grant made our outreach program more complete with additional large print books, audio books, music and DVDs and a name, Community Outreach. 

Our IT department helped update our webpage, adding our online resources and making it more meaningful to our community.  Our library webpage now has online resources for health, career and education, including a student resource with online Britannica.  The Oklahoma History Center worked with our library to digitize old tribal newsletters and continues to work with us on other projects.  Our library circulation system is automated now.  After receiving so many books, grants and materials I was able to purchase a circulation system.  (Most books were entered into the system by volunteers under the age of 12.)

I am happy to say that of all the programs that I have created since the two big red chairs were moved out of the library, our community GED program is one of the most successful and heartfelt.  So far, 48 people received their GED certificates, and there are many more to come. Our youngest GED student was 16 and our oldest so far is 67.  We are privileged to witness their self-esteem, confidence, and hopes grow as they attend class, and pass the test, with the ultimate hope that it will lead to employment, job promotion, vocational, or higher education.   We celebrate their stories by creating GED yearbooks.  The students are Hintawe, “Ours.” Their stories are on our library webpage.

A local adult education program in our district was able to supply a certified teacher and materials, all for free, to start our GED program in January 2010. They only asked that we have at least ten students and provide a place.  (When you have no money, “free” is good and “place” was easy.) Thirteen individuals attended our first class.  Everyone was seated around tables, taking the GED pretest. The air was full of hope, light conversation, and laughter.  A Native father of five stood up and said, “I’m sorry; I cannot read the instructions.”  He was not alone. Many of the students tested below the recommended six grade reading level to understand the GED materials.  We also learned that most of our students had no jobs or were in low paying jobs with little or no funds to pay for testing fees.  One student said, “I’ve taken the class before but was afraid I would fail the test and the money would be wasted.”

Our GED program continues today with support from the Iowa Tribe, the IMLS Native American Basic Library Grant, Dollar General Literacy, and WalMart Foundation contributions.  We now have our own certified teacher, offer extra tutoring, and pay for testing fees.  “One Car – One Student,” a program of a local salvage company, also donates one student’s testing fees for every donated car.  We were able to purchase a Job & Career database that includes educational and computer skills, and —when I asked—the database distributor gave us permission to share the program with five public libraries and one school library at no additional cost. 

In closing, I would like to say: start with what you have and what you know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.  I learn as I go. 

Sandy Tharp-Thee is the Library Director of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma in Perkins, OK.

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