An opportunity offered Roanoke by its surrounding universities is a chance to retain some of the talented, energetic students the schools attract. During their tenure here, we introduce them to our community and hope that something sticks. Fortunately, Marissa Mazek stuck.
The 28 year-old Roanoke Public Libraries community services assistant moved to Roanoke to attend Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing.
She grew up in New York, but has ties to the region: her mother was raised in Salem. “My mother said that I would like the area, and I did,” says Mazek. “But don’t tell her she was right!” She laughs.
On the day Mazek and I meet for coffee, she’s just finished work with a team of local leaders on a Federal Choice Neighborhoods application. The proposed project would enable the City, Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and other partners to use housing revitalization as a platform to transform part of the Melrose neighborhood. The library plays a central role, and Mazek, after the team hit the submit button, reminds me of a student at the end of the tough but rewarding semester.
The serious minded Barnard graduate remained in New York City for a few years after college, working for a literacy nonprofit. Then in graduate school, she dedicated the time at Hollins to honing her fiction and nonfiction. Upon earning an MFA in creative writing in 2015, she landed a job at the library. Last year, she married Bobby Blankinship, a Virginia Tech trained engineer she met while in school.
With her glasses and quiet, polite demeanor, Mrs. Blankinship’s roles as a writer and library professional may not come as a surprise, but don’t let that basic description prevent you from seeing the spirited heart of an activist.
In her writing and professional life, Marissa Mazek (the name under which she publishes) clearly names problems, puts together a plan to address them, and then works really hard to raise awareness and make progress. Perhaps activist is a loaded term, but you won’t find apologies here for using it. We need more people and organizations built this way.
Did I say that Mazek works really hard? She staffs Star City Reads, Roanoke’s campaign to improve the reading performance of students by third grade. It pulls together nearly 30 partner organizations in collaborative initiatives toward collective progress. This fall she guided Books on Wheels, a distribution of books to low income families at the Melrose Fall Festival. Getting books in the hands of children and families is at the heart of her work, and more than 100,000 books have been given away through Star City Reads initiatives.
Marissa stresses that she’s part of a team of community leaders and library employees. “My coworkers get things done,” she says. “They are the best people I’ve ever worked with. Often we don’t have traditional roles, and our job descriptions don’t seem to tell the whole story. We support each other in unique projects, and we each hope that the work we’re doing is changing people’s lives.”
Through Star City Readers, she engages 35 volunteers who regularly read to 850 children in 46 classrooms of 11 city schools. “The books are chosen to help the students grow into thoughtful, empathetic people. Most books are variations on the theme, ‘be nice to people.'” Some of the students’ favorite titles are Splat the Cat (Rob Scotton), Pete the Cat (Eric Litwin and James Dean), Full Full Full of Love (Trish Cooke and Paul Howard), and Todd Parr’s feelings books.
Mazek uses her writing to help us connect with other experiences. “I want to always be pointed outward.” Her recent essay online at ZiN Daily, “Over Wide Sea” combines the current conversation on immigration with research about her own Slovenian heritage, including letters from her great-great grandmother. Her novel in progress, Just Enough, centers on a South Bronx protagonist whose parents migrated from Puerto Rico. He was born in the United States but doesn’t know how to read.
“I want to humanize,” she says. And there’s a lot of humanizing to be done.
In policy debates and data driven analysis of local issues, there’s always a risk of losing sight of the immediate needs of people. Her recent work on the Choice Neighborhoods Grant brought that home. The renewed Melrose Branch Library will be part of the Goodwill Campus, a hub for services and community. “The library is a trusted institution,” says Mazek. “Most importantly, it’s a way our City—our community—connects with residents. Our work is a base from which we continue to ask, ‘What do you need? How can we help?'”
If the good work of Star City Reads has you asking how you can help, here are some links:
- To sign up as a reader in schools, visit Star City Reads.
- To donate to Star City Reads, visit rlfoundation.org.
- Check out what else is happening at your branch of Roanoke Public Libraries. ★