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Making the library the place to be

Longtime RFPL youth librarian Sam Maskell honored for community engagement

BELLOWS FALLS—Youth librarian Sam Maskell has made the Rockingham Free Public Library the place to be for the youth of Bellows Falls and beyond.

Her work engaging the community through youth programming at the RFPL over the years is well known statewide and deeply appreciated in her home town.

Earlier this month, Greater Falls Connections honored Maskell with its Active Community Engagement (A.C.E.) award.

Maskell started as a part-time assistant in 2001. As Youth Services librarian, she oversees the Youth Department programs, which foster creativity and leadership. As she sees it, her role is to support youth — from birth on — in their maturation as curious, engaged members of the community.

The Teen Advisory Council meets monthly and plans activities and programs at the library. Programs include an annual lock-in, teen tech week, “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments, and teen tabletop game nights.

Maskell said she sees libraries as community centers that are “moving from passive to proactive” institutions within communities. In addition to making sure the library’s collection of youth books are “fun and inspire learning,” she’s determined to make sure patrons can connect to the wider world through the library’s Web, social media, and instant-message presence.

“Its exciting,” Maskell said of receiving the award. “It’s always nice to get validation for doing good work here. And it’s good timing because we are always being asked the importance of being a librarian. So it’s nice to see librarians get recognition for their impact, and that they’re important to the community.”

She noted what she called “an interesting shift in libraries from being a passive repository to opportunities to learn, and experiencing the learning.” She looks for trends, she said, but also asks what people want — by engaging directly with teens and kids in the classroom.

“I ask them what they would like to see in the libraries,” she said.

Maskell explained that by engaging with kids when they’re in elementary school she sees them grow into library program volunteers by the time they’re in high school.

She pointed to the Teen Advisory Council as an outcome of that engagement process. Here, teens start volunteering from middle school on. She said they say they enjoy it all the more as the programming comes from their suggestions.

“Teens want to do something, and by that age they can come to the library on their own — and it’s a place where they want to come,” Maskell said.

But Maskell also takes an interest in her patrons at even earlier ages: she helps introduce them to books and reading through the library’s early literacy program.

As the library’s website explains, it’s never too early nor too late to share books, songs, and rhymes with your child:

“When you share stories, songs, and rhymes with a baby you create bonding moments together. These positive interactions stimulate your baby’s brain development by laying the foundation for future language, learning, and reading.”

Maskell said she helps parents learn how to engage their babies and toddlers in early childhood reading. To that end, RFPL also offers a weekly preschool and baby story time in the Youth Department.

It’s safe to say Maskell has touched a lot of lives and made a lasting, positive difference for generations to come. Indeed, she’s been at this for 14 years. Children who started out in her programs are now graduated and in college. How nice, she said, when kids occasionally come back and tell her how much the programming at the library has influenced what they are doing now.

Changing the community narrative

Greater Falls Connections (GFC), which bestowed Maskell’s A.C.E. award, has a mission: “to connect the community of Windham Northeast by inspiring and empowering people through education and collaboration to promote wellness and prevent the abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.”

Its media coordinator, Chad Simmons, explained the A.C.E. awards more deeply.

It’s an effort, he said, “to recognize the inspired, positive action happening every day” and to laud “the unsung heroes within our community who foster positive change and are dedicated to creating safe, healthy and fun options for youth, families and the community at large.”

Simmons said the organization launched A.C.E. last summer. Its first recipient, that August, was Sam Fletcher, board member and volunteer with the Saxtons River Recreation Area.

And GFC enjoys its wider role too, Simmons said. As part of its efforts to understand and prevent substance abuse, it emphasizes building relationships within the community.

“Over the years many have shared with us a sense of despair and hopelessness. I would describe it as a certain narrative about our community that’s been perpetuated for generations,” he said.

Simmons allowed that there is a certain truth to this narrative — here he acknowledged joblessness, hunger, homelessness, addiction, and generational poverty — but the group finds there’s so much more to the Greater Falls Area: its complexity, its beauty, and its people.

“The people here are resilient. They have stories, strengths, and successes that demonstrate a rich sense of place and community. It’s not all bad; it’s not all good,” he said.

The A.C.E., Simmons said, was “a small way to recast that narrative: to tell the full story. For example, how have the lives of our youth been touched by Sam [Maskell] through her work? What role do these programs, activities, and opportunities play in growing community and inspiring creativity and leadership amongst young people?”

Simmons said that the answers to these questions add depth to the Greater Falls story that, at least to a certain extent, is lacking.

From the cradle to graduation

Maskell’s involvement with Rockingham youth, from their infancy through high school years — engaging at all levels and providing programming that constantly changes with the demands of her clientele — has empowered youth and given them a chance “to learn and explore outside the classroom,” she said.

That sense of empowerment and freedom to explore, and a dynamic breadth of programming, help explain the growing popularity of the library Youth Department, Maskell said.

Indeed, attendance under Maskell’s watch has risen from a few dozen to hundreds. Powering that: keeping the library relevant to community youth at every step of the way.

“I love change,” Maskell said.

On the library’s calendar March 22, from 5 to 7:30 p.m.: a “One Direction” party and movie screening presented by the Teen Advisory Council. One Direction, or 1D, of course, is the name of the popular boy band. A do-it-yourself 1D necklace, trivia contest, and prizes are on the agenda.

Maskell said “graduates” of her programs often chaperone such events.

Several parents also come to game nights and sit to play with the kids who, Maskell said, “just accept them.”

Part of what the kids learn is a sense of equality and acceptance of diversity, she said. Role-playing games at the library, such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), are a lot of fun and help kids practice planning, solving problems, and collaborating.

The D&D games the library offers involve no computers, but rather paper, pencils, imagination, the rule books, special dice, and guides for roles and variations of the game.

Maskell said that tolerance and patience are part of the fun in D&D. And when a newcomer shows up asking how to play, “the kids are really good with them, teaching them the game.” She said learning to work together and help one another are among the best outcomes of the experience.

And that is a big reason why she earned her A.C.E.

“Sam is an amazing collaborator, dedicated to empowering youth and responding to the needs of our community,” says Frannie Waldron, director of Greater Falls Connections.

Deb Witkus, parent outreach coordinator for Greater Falls Connections, agrees:

“Sam is committed to providing a safe, welcoming, and judgment-free environment for our young people. She is generous, creative, and has a huge amount of integrity.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #246 (Wednesday, March 19, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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