Liz Zimdars has had a busy summer.
Every Monday through Thursday, Fitchburg’s outreach librarian loads up the library’s van full of activities and supplies and makes the six-minute drive to Aldo Leopold Park, where the community outreach program has been running since June 18.
“I haven’t slept for weeks, I’m full of mosquito bites and covered in sunburn,” she told the Star last week. “It has been so much fun.”
The program started on a much smaller scale last summer, when the van was introduced in August 2017.
Some Fitchburg residents don’t have access to the library and its services because of the city’s wide range of residents with different socioeconomic situations, some of whom may not be able to pay for transportation to get to the library. The goal was to strengthen the community connections between those individuals and the programs the library can provide.
Last summer, the program ran just a few days a week, with some special events during the school year. This year the program was expanded to afternoons four days a week, with special events Tuesday nights.
The events include games, reading times and crafts, as well as some other activities coordinated with local businesses and organizations. These include free lunches with REAP Food Group and bike safety programs and obstacle courses with Healthy Kids Collaborative and Dream Bikes Repair. For adults, there’s free blood-pressure checks through a program offered by the senior center, as well as dance classes and yoga.
“We’re seeing how important a program like this is,” Zimdars said. “We’re seeing, on average, at least 50 people a day, so the response really has been fantastic.”
And while they can’t use stationary services like the library’s computers during the outreach events, some of the library services are able to fit into the white van that Zimdars stuffs full.
“So far, we’ve had almost 200 kids sign up for the summer reading program, that’s bananas and so awesome,” Zimdars said. “They might not have been able to participate otherwise because they can’t get to the library, so now we can do it together, each afternoon, with a snack and a story. We’re all reading together.”
Community for community
However enthusiastic and passionate, Zimdars is only able to accomplish so much on her own.
But she has wide-reaching support.
The library hired three part-time staff members for the summer, made possible with funding from the Friends of the Fitchburg Library, allowing for the expanded services.
“We’re doubling (our presence) from last year because we feel that having that consistent presence is so important,” Zimdars said. “We can do so much more than when it was just me.”
Next Step Ministries also provides middle and high school student volunteers, who are able to help with some of the more basic activities.
When the program expanded, it also expanded the need for additional basic supplies, such as first aid kits, cups, sunscreen. The volunteers help organize those, but Zimdars also now has to coordinate Porta-Potties, sprinklers and a dance floor for upcoming events.
An anonymous donor has funded new books for giveaways, further strengthening the reading program.
“I’m able to come up with new, high-interest books, and everybody gets at least one,” Zimdars explained. “(The kids) get so excited because they get to pick out their own, they’re brand new, and for all ages.”
Now that the library programs are embedded into Leopold, Zimdars said she is working on reaching new parts of Fitchburg that could benefit from similar programs.
She also has been working with the Madison-based Literacy Network to provide free English as a Second Language classes as part of an outreach program at Nine Springs Golf Course, 2201 Traceway Drive. The next class will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 25.
“We hope to keep that going year round because it’s important to have a space in the neighborhood that’s easily accessible,” Zimdars said. “There’s a lot of interest in the Literacy Network, so we’d really love to continue that partnership.”
She also works with Trail to Success, a program that offers after-school enrichment program for kids who live in the Pines Apartments but get bused over to Chavez Elementary School instead of attending the much closer Leopold.
Looking ahead to the summer outreach program specifically, Zimdars said she is looking into other areas in the Fitchburg community to host more afternoon activities. She said she anticipates announcements on the locations to come in January.
“Because we’re able to do this more consistently, people who happen to be walking by almost always come back again,” she said. “We’re seeing more adults than I thought, more grandparents with younger kids, so we’re trying to work together to get activities that get kids out of the house, allows parents to socialize, so this summer can be fun for everyone.”