Cape librarian gains recognition in state for creative changes

Friday, April 16, 2004

Every weekday morning at 11, Jared Ritter walks through the double doors of the Central Middle School library in Cape Girardeau. He grabs a chess set from the antique Coca-Cola cooler-turned-makeshift-bar and sits down at the 1950s diner-style table to match strategies with a couple of his friends. This is his recess.

Most of his classmates are outside on the playground, playing basketball or kickball. But Jared and a few of his friends choose to be here, plotting the capture of each other's kings or just reading their favorite mystery and adventure stories. This is their sanctuary from the daily grind of sixth grade.

"The library's a fun place to be," Jared said. "If you've had a bad day, you can come here and think about something else."

That was the idea. When librarian Vickie Howard stood in the then-empty room in June 2002, she saw a place where children could shed the burden of their backpacks and escape. It was a dream she had harbored most of her 26-year career. Now she is being honored for that vision.

The Missouri Association of School Librarians has named Howard the winner of the 2004 Bright Idea Award, a prize given to a person who has innovatively and creatively enlarged the role of a school's library. In accepting the award, Howard sees the accomplishment as the community's.

When Central Junior High left the building behind to move next door in 2002, Howard received empty bookshelves, a hulking checkout desk and a librarian's office desk. The school told her the library would have an ample budget to buy books and materials, but there was no money for furniture -- let alone the things Howard needed for her vision.

Rather than jettison the dream, she appealed to the community. Her word-of-mouth solicitation for donations of old 1950s furniture to fit the theme yielded only moderate results. Growing desperate, she appealed to the media. The response was overwhelming after the Southeast Missourian ran a front-page story about the project, Howard said.

"People started calling, donating all kinds of things."

Everything from old 45-speed records to cafe booths to a giant wooden jukebox replica were delivered. One woman even dropped off a salon chair with a working hair dryer that students use today after swimming.

Amid the flood of contributions, Howard also solicited old oak tables and chairs to establish a Colonial-themed instruction area at the east end of the library. What she couldn't use she traded in or sold to get things she could use. Parents and students helped clean and paint the library. The school's black and orange colors intentionally were left out of the scheme to emphasize the library's theoretical separation.

When completed, the east end was the Colonial classroom/library instruction and research area with its wooden tables and chairs. The center portion was Howard's 1950s soda shop-style leisure area for independent reading and activity. The rear of the room was the futurist area filled with the school's computers for online research. All of this was surrounded by shelves full of books, fiction and nonfiction as well as paraphernalia to accentuate that area's theme.

As the inside neared completion, a new project just outside the library endeared itself to Howard, whose mother had died earlier that spring. Howard and her volunteers tamed the tangle of weeds, vines and trees in the school courtyard and made it a place where students could read and socialize in good weather. The grass was cut, the rest of the vegetation trimmed and donated stone benches, a birdbath and fountain were installed.

For a final touch, Howard transplanted wildflowers from her mother's garden. Today, students can take a quilt that used to be in Howard's mother's house out to the courtyard, spread it out on the grass and read.

Although the library and courtyard have been functional for almost two years now, the project is still evolving. Howard is always looking for chairs to replace those that couldn't stand up under continuous use by 630 fifth- and sixth-graders. She also is planning a mural for the futurist section, a mosaic incorporating old computer and electronics parts. She thinks she has accomplished what she set out to do.

"It's cool," said 11-year-old Dominick Whitaker, grabbing his bag to leave the library and head back into the hallway as the bell sounds. "It's a fascinating place to learn and take a breath from class."

335-6611, extension 137

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