The King County Library System strives to serve communities by offering not only information and educational opportunities, but by connecting people in libraries with resources to meet their needs, bridging gaps and ultimately offering hope.
That is precisely what KCLS social-service specialists, called Peers in Libraries, do. This new program creates a compassionate space for understanding and relating to others, while sharing stories without judgment and helping people to rebuild their lives.
KCLS has contracted with Peer Kent, a nonprofit organization that aims to cultivate powerful, healthy lives by providing emotional support and development services to those impacted by addiction, mental health and/or HIV/AIDS. This partnership provides three full-time Peer Services Specialists, who work at the Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Bellevue Libraries. Grant funding for these positions comes from the KCLS Foundation and King County Health Care for the Homeless Network.
Peers in Libraries is one of only a few such programs nationwide, and the only one in Washington State. From January through June, Peers have engaged with 1,115 patrons, referring 839 people to library and community resources. Patron contacts are made not only in libraries, but also through outreach services in the community, such as community meals, encampments and shelters.
Peers also have attended 190 community meetings to stay abreast of local needs. The program has grown since its October 2021 debut, not only due to increasing needs, but also because of Peers’ effectiveness and positive word-of-mouth recommendations, says Melissa G., KCLS Health and Social Services Coordinator.
“Peers do so much in our libraries and communities, working from a trauma-informed lens,” she told the KCLS Board of Trustees recently. “They are heroes.”
Peers have unique qualifications. They are individuals with lived experiences of mental or medical illness, substance abuse, homelessness and/or involvement with the criminal justice system. Now on a path to recovery, Peers draw on their experience, helping community members to identify and achieve wellness goals. Peers are able to build trust, connecting people with the resources and services they need, including shelter and housing, education, employment and other basic needs.
There are many heart-rending patron stories. Peers say that the work is rewarding and inspiring, because the people they help are so grateful.
Peer Tony C. recalled a man experiencing homelessness who came to the library after his tent had been slashed, repairing it in vain with “dental floss and a pencil.”
“We got to talking and I found out that he needed some food and all of his bedding was wet,” said Tony, who drew on local resources to help. “I was able to provide him with a tent, sleeping bag, socks, some hand-warmers and two bags of food. When I gave it all to him, he had tears in his eyes, thanking me and saying I must be an angel.”
Tony also helped a woman who arrived at a library, cold and seeking a hotel voucher. He determined that texting was the best way to communicate with her, as she was hard of hearing. He learned she was living in her van and had serious medical needs. To ensure her safety, he walked her to the local fire department, which helped find her shelter and access to medical care.
Among the many people Abigail B. has helped as a Peer, was a father who had been searching for his son, who was experiencing homelessness. The two were reunited at a library, and Abigail helped set up the young man with a much-needed cell phone.
Peer Therese P. said she has shared “heart-breaking experiences” with patrons, yet such sharing has helped build trust and stabilized lives. After explaining her challenges, one woman who was living in a shelter, came back to the library to see Therese many times and received a spectrum of support.
“She is still working towards goals with me, and I am optimistic there will be more successes along the way,” Therese said.
As Tony put it, “It’s just amazing how the basic little things can be so important, and how a patron who went to the library to charge his phone, can end up leaving with a heart full of hope.”