The first floor of the Nicetown-Tioga Library looks like any other library. Books are sprawled across the layout of the interior, conversations are kept to a mere whisper and “no cell phones” and “no talking” signs are posted along the walls. Upstairs is a completely different story. Sunshine spills into the large, white room where kids are partaking in an intense game of Dance Dance Revolution. A radio is blaring in the background and a group of kids are noisily playing cards in the far end of the room.
“This program is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Robert Robinson, 16, says. The program Robinson is referring to is the Leap after-school program. Michael Durkin, the director of the program at the library, has been working with the kids since April. “The main goal is to keep children off the streets and to help them excel in their schoolwork,” says the West Chester University graduate. The Nicetown-Tioga community has a low graduation rate at 32 percent, so any after-school program to help motive and excite these kids appear to help. The Leap program gives these children opportunities for homework help and other school-related needs. However, the program also incorporates fun, stimulating activities for the kids. “We also do bingo, poetry readings, arts and crafts, drawing, writing lessons and we just had a day filled with jazz music. Of course, the favorite among these kids would be Dance Dance Revolution and playing on the Wii Fit. We just had a step-dance competition last week, too,” Durkin explains. “We have had some of the same kids coming here for years,” Durkin adds.
Sisters Bailey, 12, and Crystal Sudler, 10, have been coming to the after-school program for eight years and, like most, come every day. “I like bingo the best, but I also like going downstairs and talking to the librarians,” Bailey says. “My dad is in the Marines and was just sent to Georgia for boot camp, I was really sad. This place helps a lot and the librarians are so funny and make me laugh,” Bailey says. Her sister, Crystal, says she also enjoys the social activities that the program has to offer, but also finds enjoyment in the learning and reading aspects the library has to offer. “I stopped taking the bus everywhere and my mom bought me a rolling scooter, because we learned about global warming,” 10-year old Crystal explains. “The buses pollute the air, I learned that last week—and don’t even get me started on the damage smoking cigarettes does to the environment.”
With many activities, the Leap program has some loyal followers. “My sister brought me to the library to read books, then I heard about this program and I started coming,” Robinson says. “I’ve been coming here for four years now—I’m hooked! I never miss,” he adds. The Leap program is offered everyday from 3:30 to 6:30 with an age group of 14 to 18 years old. On a good day, a group of 20 or more kids may show up. “We are starting to get older kids in. I’d say in the past month we’re getting more kids from 18 to 19,” Durkin says. “The older kids are becoming sort of mentors for the younger kids,” adds Durkin.
Desmonae Jones, 18, has become just that for these impressionable young adults. Jones has been a frequent at the program for years and stresses the fact of being a positive role model for these children. “I think it’s important to show them other ways of life than the stuff going on in our neighborhood,” Jones says, “the program also could give people jobs.” The hard economic times has left this community struck with a high unemployment rate. “The people of Philly could come in and get some jobs with us, we’re always looking for people to help out and get involved. That’s why the library can’t close, we’d lose so much” Jones explains.
The scare of closing the Public Libraries of Philadelphia has been looming on the horizon since last year. Public libraries usually get their funding from many sources. It’s usually a mixture of municipal, state, private and federal funds. Depending on the specific combination of funding sources and whether or not the library levies its own taxes or depends on a switch in budget, a late budget could end up being horrific for them. Which is what is going on in Philadelphia right now—making it very hard for the libraries to function without state aid. With the city of Philadelphia strapped for money, closing the libraries became talk of the town. Last September, Mayor Nutter announced if they did not get the funds from Harrisburg, some branches of the library would be closed and others would be affected by cutting back hours and staff. With an enormous backlash and support from the community, the public libraries kept these 54 branches open. The city decided to slash funding on recreational parks and decrease the budget for the police and fire services. As of now, the library will not be affected by the budget.
Unfortunately, the community of Nicetown-Tioga still has fears about its library closing. Librarian Marsha Stender worries if the library would close, it would really hurt the community and the young adults that attend the free after-school program. “A library is the keeper of the knowledge. It is a place in the neighborhood where knowledge is important,” she says, “It is a place where you can meet and talk to people. It is a safe place for your children to go after school,” Stender adds.
The kids couldn’t agree more. “I don’t know what I would do with myself if they decided to close the library,” Robinson says as he shakes his head, “I seriously don’t even know. I love this place, closing it down would be the most depressing day of my life. I hope it never happens.”