Walking into the McPherson Square Branch library, adult and teen librarian Chera Kowalski sees many things. The outside of the library, where the use of drugs is a daily occurrence, and the inside, where the people of Kensington are capitalizing on the resources of the library.
Kowalski, 32, facilitates many of these resources as she and the other staff at McPherson combat destructive aspects of Kensington by cultivating education for all ages.
Talk a little about your background.
I went to Temple – English – as an undergrad and then I went to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for a master’s in library and information science. I ended up going to Free Library to volunteer… and I fell in love with the public service aspect of it. So while I was finishing my undergrad, I volunteered and did an internship with the Free Library of Philadelphia and then decided I wanted to be a public librarian around that time. I went to U of I with the hopes of coming back here to become a librarian. [I have been doing this] officially since 2013.
What does a librarian do exactly?
It depends on where you are. Public librarians, basically, our job is to help people find resources that they need, information. It just depends on your community and what your community needs are. For instance, here I do a lot of computer help, helping people fill out online job applications, resumes, helping them locate jobs, how to do online job searches, creating emails, signing up for COMPASS stuff. So public benefits, I help them with those applications. The way we should handle librarians is whatever the need is for the community, you figure out how to respond to it. We do have books, I can do that stuff. But it’s more like people will come in and say this is the current situation, I need help getting a GED. And then I kind of give them referrals to other community organizations that can help them get a GED.
What do you do that goes beyond the scope of a librarian? Do all librarians do what you guys do?
I think throughout the city of Philadelphia, yeah. We’re in a weird situation here sometimes with the drugs outside. So for instance, where some libraries have fire drills, we have an overdose drill. We all kind of want to be on the same page of how to handle that situation when it arises. Here definitely comes with its own stuff like the kids will come in and mention the stuff that they see outside so there’s a lot of breaking that down. It’s not just books here, there’s a lot more. We offer the federal lunch program, that starts again next week. So after school… the kids can come in if they’re under 18 and get a free meal at 3:30 p.m. everyday. I do a lot of referrals of connecting people to resources like Community Legal Services, Prevention Point, stuff like that. So it is so much more, moving towards a social service based thing.
Tell me about what this library does for the community. Events? Resources?
The whole Free Library system has the LEAP program which is an after school program that offers homework help and activities. Our adult program is skimpy because every time I’ve tried to do that the attendance is low so it’s a lot more one on one. So if somebody comes in and does need help with a resume I will sit there with them and help them, walk them through it, along with job applications. We work a lot with Impact Services and… they do a lot of stuff. Like at Christmas they bring Santa Claus in, there’s a Halloween parade every year, we do the Easter bunny so they are awesome. They kind of help us provide more programming because we also only get $200 a year for our programming. We have a whole fiscal year to work with that too so we try to get a little creative.
What are some setbacks you have faced while providing these things to the community?
Funding, you only get a certain amount of money for the other materials that go out. It’s kind of figuring out ways to be creative with that. The park, the drug use… and the crime in the park kind of keeps people from wanting to come in because they have to walk through that. Word got out that the library in the park wasn’t safe anymore and the community worked extremely hard to push the drugs out prior and make the park a safer place. I think it’s a really complicated thing. We wish there was a bit more consistency in [police] presence in the park because when… they’re around, we don’t see a lot of drug use and people aren’t hanging out. It’s an open air drug den out there some days, I’ve called 911 three times in the past week. That is definitely one of the setbacks but… there are efforts being made to make sure the park is clean and safe.
What is the most successful thing you think you have done or been a part of while serving this community?
Making a welcoming and safe environment for the kids. People come in here and you can tell they want to be here, they’re thankful for what we’re offering and just being able to have that space in this community is helpful and I want to make sure that we continue to be that space. I picked this branch. I grew up in a similar way so when they said it was available I kind of was familiar with what goes on with that type of drug use and living in these types of conditions so I felt like I could get a better understanding of what the kids are going through.
Does it help that you have that personal attachment?
I think it does and it can kind of set me back a little just because it’s just hard when you see stuff that you saw as a kid as an adult. That can be a problem sometimes but at the end of the day I had social workers and teachers that made a difference and that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this. I still remember some of those ladies by their names and think about them so to be able to give back in that way is amazing.
— Text and images by Eva Arce and Darrian Hopson.