by Karen Long
As I left my full-time position in education, first a teacher and then an elementary principal, I wondered how I would be able to continue to contribute positively to the lives of children in my community. When I began part-time work with the Ohio Writing Project at Miami University as a teacher consultant and as the Masters of Teaching Coordinator, I was invited to attend a workshop about Everyday Advocacy with Cathy Fleischer at Eastern Michigan University. It was there that my eyes were opened to a powerful and meaningful way that I would be able to make a positive impact in my community as an everyday advocate for children and literacy.
As an elementary principal, I knew the importance of getting books into the hands and homes of the children in my school. I knew that exposure to print is an important predictor of reading readiness. As both a teacher and principal, whenever other teachers and librarians would weed out unread books from their collections, I would save the books to give away to students and families. As a principal, I had boxes and boxes of books that I’d collected stored on the stage in the gym. As children left family events and boarded buses on the last day of school, their arms and backpacks would be loaded with books to take home and read and share with friends and family. When I learned about another principal reading a bedtime story on Facebook Live to their students in the evenings, I knew that I wanted to do this too. I started reading a bedtime story every Monday night at 7pm to students on our school Facebook page. I invited teachers to be guest readers too. I wanted to share the love of reading with children, their families, our community, teachers, and anyone who would listen!
Looking back, it’s not surprising that this would become my everyday advocacy project in my community after retirement, getting books into the hands and homes of children.
The idea of the Clinton County Laundromat Libraries was sparked by the same work being done in Milwaukee, highlighted in an NPR report in 2019. When I read the article and listened to the story, I knew that I could do this in my own community! And I knew from my work with Everyday Advocacy that I had to start small with manageable steps. I started by trying to find allies in this work, so I shared the link to the NPR story on my Facebook feed, asking if anyone wanted to join me in starting a laundromat library program in our county. A few people responded so I set up a meeting to meet with each of them. We talked about manageable and doable ways to get started, making lists and assigning tasks and goal dates for completion. I visited all of the laundromats and contacted their owners, asking their permission to place small bookshelves and children’s books in their laundromats. Four of the five owners eagerly agreed. I learned in my work with Everyday Advocacy that not everyone would be an ally. The owner who responded negatively to the idea claimed that children did not come to his laundromat and he wanted to keep it that way, worried that they could get hurt at the laundromat. So I moved forward in setting up the four laundromat libraries in the locations where I’d found allies. I collected funds from a friend to purchase used bookshelves at an estate sale of another friend. A teacher-friend reached out with our first donation of books weeded out of her own classroom library. We were able to set up small libraries in all four of the Clinton County laundromats with signs that encouraged children to read a book while they waited, take it home with them if they wanted, share it with a friend, and bring a book from home to leave for someone else to read. It worked a lot like the little free library book houses placed around the country.
Now it was time to get the word out to families and children in the community that there were books to be read waiting for them at the laundromat! In addition, I wanted the community to know that there was a need for books to be donated to the laundromat libraries so that we could keep our shelves full of interesting books. So I began posting updates about the laundromat libraries on my personal FB page, making people aware of the project and sharing ways that people could get involved. As news spread, I decided to move the updates to their own Facebook page, Clinton County Laundromat Libraries. I shared the posts on my own page and invited all of my friends to follow the page and share it with their friends. In all my posts, I always used the word WE, even when it was mostly me. I knew that to be sustaining, that this project had to become a true WE.
As I prepared to leave town to do some traveling, I needed to grow more allies and engage allies in more active participation in the work. I reached out to the local farmer’s market director and asked if I could be part of the Healthy Family Day at the farmer’s market in July. She said yes. I borrowed a tailgate tent from a friend, and brought a few bookshelves with lots of books to give away to the children who would come to the market that day. I invited local celebrities to come every half hour to be guest readers. At the market, we shared information about the project and how to get involved donating books. From that event, we identified more allies, ambassadors and champions for the project. I then contacted the local newspaper and wrote an article about the project. Today, the project has grown to include team leaders at each laundromat and partnerships with people and organizations across the county. One laundromat librarian is a Title One reading teacher, another works at the local newspaper and has created a donation site at the newspaper’s office where people can drop off books for the laundromats and where laundromat leaders can go and collect more books to place on the shelves of their laundromat libraries. Another laundromat librarian is a County Commissioner. The county librarians have gotten involved, sharing their weeded out library books and donated children’s books that they would have normally sold in their Friends of the Library books sale. Another laundromat library leader is a grandma in the community who just wants to make sure that books are available to all children in the community where her daughter is a teacher. Retired teachers have also gotten involved donating books and restocking shelves and collecting donated books from different locations. The local Art House and county libraries have also stepped up as book donation sites. The local chapter of the Eagles have donated $200 for us to purchase books for the laundromat libraries.
The Clinton County Chamber of Commerce recently recognized me as a community champion with an award for my leadership of this project. It provided another way for us to get the word out about the laundromat libraries and how others can get involved in growing and sustaining this important work. Through the publicity of the chamber of commerce award, I was contacted by Ohio’s director of the Imagination Library Project, as well as Frank Sibberson, a literacy author and consultant working with Franklin County in Columbus, Ohio to share the work that we are doing to support early literacy through our work. At each laundromat library location, we have brochures for families that promote signing up for the Imagination Library, the Dolly Parton project that shares free books with families from birth to age 5.
In just two years, this seed of an everyday advocacy idea has grown into sustainable places where children can reliably find interesting books to read and share with friends and families. On Facebook, I have encouraged friends in other communities to recreate this project in their communities. Here’s what you can do to create this or another advocacy project in your own community:
Share your idea with others
Go to people involved and gather support around your idea
Build awareness around your idea. Social media can be a great resource for this.
Anticipate what concerns people might have about your idea and think about how you might address those concerns.
Do something to move your idea into action! Then share your actions with others. Again, social media can be a great resource for ongoing awareness spreading. Plug into local news media resources and add them to your circle of allies.
Think about and plan for the sustainability of your project, most likely this calls for your allies to be active participants in the project.
As we move forward as a laundromat library project in Clinton County, we have these hopes and dreams about our next action steps:
Encourage organizations and individuals to host book drives to collect more books for our shelves and more books for the children in our community.
Develop financial partners with local businesses to host events at the laundromats to promote reading and help get more families signed up for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
Continue to foster community partners with other non-profits like the farmers’ market, Art House and the local rails to trails and hold events in conjunction with one another.
Share this Everyday Advocacy work with other educators and community members in order to further positive efforts in the community.
Everyday Advocacy can happen anywhere in your community...even in a laundromat!
Karen Long is a lifelong reader and traveler. She currently does advocacy work in both the community where she lives and where she travels. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @MrsKarenLong, and on Facebook at Karen Urban Long or Clinton County Laundromat Libraries.