September 14 – 23 marks Welcoming Week, a national effort led locally by the City of Roanoke and a dozen nonprofit organizations. Planned events will bring together immigrants, refugees, and native-born residents to promote the benefits of welcoming everyone in our community.
To mark Welcoming Week, we asked Roanoke Public Libraries Director Sheila S. Umberger and Blue Ridge Literacy Executive Director Stephanie Holladay to help us celebrate with a special three-part post.
- Today: Sheila and Stephanie give us some background on a strong and important partnership at work on South Jefferson Street.
- Sunday, in our FIVE ON series, we’ll get their list of five Young Adult (YA) book recommendations for a welcoming community.
- Monday, they’ll offer up a list of FIVE ON Welcoming Communities (adult titles).
YOU ARE WELCOME
The bottom floor of the Main Library of the Roanoke Public Libraries (RPL) is a vibrant place where adults learn lessons that improve the trajectory of their lives. It’s home to Blue Ridge Literacy, an independent nonprofit organization that provides literacy services for more than 350 Roanoke area adults every year. The partnership is more than a simple co-location.
There have been close ties from the beginning. Blue Ridge Literacy (BRL) was founded in 1985 as “Literacy Volunteers of the Roanoke Valley” by two local librarians in response to numerous inquiries about adult literacy services. While it’s a separate entity from the library, Blue Ridge Literacy is a key partner in the pursuit of the Libraries’ mission of ensuring that all Roanoke adults are able to lead literate and informed lives. The organization was housed in a few different locations throughout the years before moving to a suite in the Main Library building in 2007.
As community centers for City of Roanoke residents, the Main Library and the six neighborhood branches provide resources and programs that enrich children’s literacy skills and adults’ knowledge base. Both organizations offer programs designed to engage, educate, and collaborate with all individuals who walk through their doors. For those who want to improve their reading, speaking, writing, and listening skills, Blue Ridge Literacy offers classes and literacy tutors.
Since 2012, the two organizations have worked to coordinate programs. For Star City Reads – Roanoke’s multiple award-winning Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Initiative, Roanoke Public Libraries serve as the community lead and Blue Ridge Literacy is one of six founding partners. Through this partnership, the Libraries provide books for the children of BRL’s adult learners. Recently, BRL and RPL have worked together to implement cultural initiatives, such as community language classes in Arabic. Take one as part of Welcoming Week on Monday, September 17.
Both BRL and RPL are welcoming, safe spaces for community members. In addition to providing support in finding jobs and obtaining citizenship, they celebrate the many cultures in the Roanoke Valley. Recently, BRL students taught their native languages to community members, and many RPL events celebrate the cuisines and cultures of the heritages present in Roanoke. Most importantly, both organizations welcome anyone, regardless of their background or current situation.
“All of our adult students, no matter what their reading level or native language, know that they are welcome at Blue Ridge Literacy,” says Holladay. “Our staff help our learners master English so they and their children can participate the community. People cannot learn if they do not feel welcome, so we strive to create a comfortable, supportive environment. We want to help our immigrant students incorporate into the community while also celebrating their cultures. We help native English speakers improve their literacy skills so they can better take advantage of the opportunities Roanoke offers.”
Umberger serves on the Board of Directors of Blue Ridge Literacy, working closely with BRL on many issues. “Our partnership is a natural fit,” she says, “because of BRL’s focus on helping adults gain the literacy skills they need to succeed in our society. We hope that all BRL students become able to fully take advantages of all the resources the Libraries and other city organizations offer.”
Many adult literacy learners go upstairs to the Main Library to work with their tutors and to check out books and movies that will help them improve their English skills. The organizations’ shared missions to serve the community allow for creative programming, as well as the opportunity to better support the individuals who seek their services. “We’re both here,” says Umberger, “to help all Roanoke citizens thrive.”
Celebrate Welcoming Week at a library near you.
- Monday, Sept. 17, 6 PM: Introduction to Arabic – Main Library
- Wednesday, Sept. 19, 5:30 PM: Multilingual Adult Spelling Bee – Williamson Road Branch
- Thursday, Sept. 20, 6:30 PM: Pot Luck and Community Discussion – Williamson Road Branch