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New York Librarian Brings Books to Homeless Children

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At a time when public services, including libraries, are under attack, it’s up to AFSCME members who never quit, people like Colbert Nembhard, to keep our communities strong.

Nembhard, a member of AFSCME Local 1930 (DC 37), is a branch manager for the New York Public Library system and a leader in bringing library services to homeless children.

Eight years ago, he began visiting the Crotona Inn homeless shelter in the borough of Bronx for a family literacy workshop. The children gathered with their parents and Nembhard read library books to them, taught them children’s songs and gave their parents educational tips for improved interaction.

The value of the performance, which a New York Times reporter described as “just short of a Mr. Rogers routine,” went beyond fun or entertainment. To homeless children whose family situations were unstable and whose access to education was limited, reading time with the librarian was a way of beginning or reinforcing their relationships with books, as well as feeding their nascent imaginations and curiosity.

“At that age the brain absorbs so much, it’s like a sponge,” Nembhard told AFSCME. “If the children are missing out in their formative years, they’re going to be missing a whole lot of stuff as they grow up.”

Nembhard’s example was so successful that it inspired a pilot project in New York City to bring libraries to homeless shelters.

“In this day and age,” he told Lester Holt of NBC, “there’s no reason why a child should not be able to read. I don’t want anybody to be left behind. I want these kids to know that they’re important.”

Colbert Nembhard has been sparking the love of reading among homeless kids and their families throughout his career. (Photos courtesy Ayofemi Kirby, New York Public Library)
Colbert Nembhard has been sparking the love of reading among homeless kids and their families throughout his career. (Photos courtesy Ayofemi Kirby, New York Public Library)

An immigrant from Jamaica who came to New York as a child, Nembhard was in his teens when he saw an ad for a page position at the public library. He applied for it, was given the job and has been in the New York library system ever since – 39 years, the last 25 as branch manager.

His work for the public library has been “not just one job, but a variety of things, working in the community, going to the schools, to daycare centers and shelters, always using my skills to provide a service to the community,” Nembhard said. “It’s about partnering with people and bringing the library to everyone, taking the library to different places so we can get everyone on board.”

For his efforts to improve his community, Nembhard received the AFSCME Never Quit Service Award.

Nembhard’s work has inspired others. People who read about him in the news have wanted to know how they can get involved. Anybody can do this type of work if they reach out to their local shelter, Nembhard said, adding that he hopes library systems outside New York will also take notice and become inspired.

“At the library, we’re making sure that we’re out there in our communities,” he said. “We’re leaving our comfort zone and our four walls and we are going into all these places to bring our services.”

Never Quit Service Awards

Do you know a public service worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty? Nominate them here for the AFSCME Never Quit Service Award.