Dollar General Grant Winner: Teaching Teens Real World Skills

Butler, Pennsylvania, is a small city 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. Parts of Butler can be fairly suburban, while other parts are quite rural.  The Butler Area Public Library is located in downtown Butler, and serves a population of about 14,000. Two thirds of individuals ages 25 and over have had no post-secondary education. As a result, many of the teens that the library serves are preparing to be first generation college students; families are often not well prepared to teach the skills of adult life to their teens. While local schools have begun making an effort, teens are still finding themselves unprepared to transition into adulthood.

This is just a small sample of the materials we added to the YA Collection on various topics related to “adulting”.

BAPL was fortunate to receive grant funding from YALSA and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to create summer programming to help teens work on learning or improving real world skills, such as job seeking, budgeting, and meal preparation.  We planned six weeks of programming, with a different focus area covered each week. The goal of the program was to teach the teens soft skills and life skills in ways that were fun and engaging. We also used a portion of the grant funding to update our Young Adult Collection to have more materials that covered these topics.

Originally, I planned to have community members come and speak with the teens about some of the different skills areas; unfortunately, this proved to not be feasible. Our downtown association has been working very hard on city revitalization projects, and as a result, many of the community members were already over committed. Luckily, the topics we covered were so general, library staff members were able to cover all the planned sessions.

The biggest thing I learned over the course of this program is that teen librarians have to be willing to adapt on the fly. I went into the summer with a solid six week program set up, with very measurable outcomes. However, once I was in the middle of doing the programming, I sometimes found my “plan” did not really meet the needs of the teens attending the program.  An example of this was the week where we worked on job seeking; the plan for the program was to have the teens work on a resume and do mock interviews. In reality, the teens wanted to learn how to handle stressful situations in general. They knew what kinds of answers they should or should not give in an interview, they knew what types of clothes they should or should not wear to an interview. What they wanted, and needed to learn, was how to manage the nerves leading up to an interview, how to handle those “curveballs” that might be thrown their way, and how to have more self-confidence. Most importantly, the teens needed and wanted someone to take the time to just sit and talk to them about how hard it is to get your first job.

I often feel slightly defeated when it comes to teen programming. The teens will say they want these really cool programs, so I plan them, then attendance is abysmal.  It is the same story for many libraries. However, at my library, we have recently shifted our mindset a little. Our teens are not interested in STEM programs, or movie nights, or board games. Instead, they are looking for a safe and inclusive space where they are treated as independent individuals with their own inherent worth, and they find that at the library. Looking at the attendance numbers alone, one may conclude that my teen summer program failed at meeting the program goals. However, for the few teens that did come to the program, the impact was tremendous. Those teens not only met their goals for the summer, they exceeded them. And I call that a success.

Tiffany Harkleroad is the Youth Services Librarian at the Butler Area Public Library. She is a 2017 MLIS graduate from San Jose State University, and is a mentor in the 2018 Public Library Association Inclusive Internship Initiative.  She lives with her husband, their cat, and their two dogs just blocks away from the library. When not working on library related projects, she can be found watching true crime documentaries, listening to podcasts created by the McElroys, and throwing fireball spells as a hafling sorceress with her Dungeons and Dragons group.

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