By Nona Tepper
As an undergraduate student at the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, Grace Kilgore travelled more than 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Greece, where she lived in Athens and volunteered at a Syrian refugee camp in her spare time. Kilgore worked in a soup kitchen and childcare center. She learned that she didn't need to speak the same language as refugees to provide support.
"It was the most impactful thing I had done so far in my life," Kilgore said. "It made me want to come home and serve underrepresented populations."
Kilgore returned to her college in Minnesota, inspired by her service to eventually graduate with a minor in sociology. She is now a first-year graduate student at the Loyola University School of Social Work where, in addition to attending classes full-time, she spends 16 hours weekly working at the Forest Park Public Library. Kilgore is one of two social work interns there. Her service represents the first time the library has adopted social work interns, and Forest Park is the first and only library to ever partner with Loyola.
"Anytime somebody makes it known that they are in need of support, we track those incidents," said Pilar Shaker, library executive director. "We've been seeing increases, and also just increases at managers meetings of patrons who are very clearly in need of support services. Knowing that we don't have somebody on staff who can do much more than provide a phone number or a name of an organization, we thought it might be nice to add social workers."
Shaker said the library has been seeing an increase in those staying at the library all day, arriving right when the institution opens and needing to be escorted out when it closes. She said the library has also been seeing an increase in those attempting to wash up at the library. "We have to tell them they can't do that here, but we also sympathize with the fact that now we are aware they don't have places to do that," she said. One of the reasons the library installed its Little Free Food Pantry in April 2018 was because there has been a rise in those asking about how to connect with local food pantries and facing food insecurity.
Around this time last year, the library board charged staff with looking into adding social work to the library's offerings. "It's becoming more and more common for public libraries to get social workers, which is really amazing," said Alicia Hammond, community engagement manager. "However, it's not really possible for us to hire a full-time social worker right now."
Rather than trying to hire someone, Shaker decided to call Loyola about adding the library as an internship site for its students. Her brother had just finished his master's degree from the school, and Shaker knew that students had to do an internship to complete their degree. She said she reached out to every staff member who had the word "internship" in their job title and heard back immediately from the school.
"It was kind of a perfect storm of things that came together quickly and well," she said.
Loyola and the library finished all the legal paperwork associated with the internship in fall 2018, but the library still wasn't paired with an intern. "One of the issues for our site was that we are one of the only sites that they have that doesn't have social workers on staff," Shaker said, adding: "They wanted to match us with students that they felt could manage being at a site that didn't have an on-site social worker."
But the next semester, the library found the right match with Kilgore and Raqueal Pullums, who started their internships on Jan. 14 and will stay until August. Their first few weeks, the two are going through the library's incident reports to find out what services the library needs, as well as talking with staff to learn more about the relationships they've built with patrons. Kilgore also might add office hours, where patrons can come in and talk about whatever is on their minds. Interns are available at the library all day Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Neither will offer any diagnostic or medical advice.
"I would just like to establish more good rapport with the patrons and more lasting, trusting relationships," Kilgore said. "So right now I'm just basically introducing myself and saying, 'Hey I'm over at the desk if you need anything,' and doing research on the resources available in the area. But I'm hoping to build relationships with the patrons, and also reaching out to the resources, so there's a more one-on-one connection."