Beyond Books: South County High Library Serves as Hub for Community Outreach
On any given day in the South County High Library in Lorton, students are doing far more than checking out books. Students use the library as a meeting spot to knit winter hats for the homeless, make pet blankets for animal shelters under the guidance of head librarian Emily Strong and turn to co-librarian Ronielle Romney as sponsor of the Elder Outreach Club, a group of roughly 90 students who formed during the pandemic to send letters to senior citizens, as part of a push to combat loneliness. Going beyond books is a common goal for Fairfax County Public School librarians, Romney says. FCPS celebrates School Library Month in April.
“We all talk about how to best serve our populations, how to make libraries warm and welcoming places, be it through design or having a maker space – where students can learn how to use a sewing machine or something like that, or through providing a home for students to gather as they give back to their community,” Romney said. Romney, who worked as an English teacher at South County High for 15 years before moving to the library, picked up sponsorship of the Elder Outreach Club from a prior school librarian, Lisa Muir, who transferred to Woodson High School in Fairfax. She credits student leaders for getting the project off the ground, sending more than 500 letters to seniors and pushing to expand their campaign to connect with seniors to neighboring schools. “It was sort of a coincidence that it is linked to the library, a student had the idea, was passionate about it and it grew from there, exactly how you want clubs to be,” Romney said. The 90 Elder Outreach Club members have a monthly theme to help them find a common thread for their letters – be it Halloween, Winter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day – and have a three week window in which to drop off letters bound for senior citizens in local assisted living facilities.
“Especially during the pandemic, the senior population in assisted living facilities was really struggling with isolation and being cut-off from the world,” Romney said. “It was our goal to do something to help fight that sense of isolation. As things improve with Covid-19, we’d like to get more club members into assisted living facilities for one-on-one conversations, to share music, play board games and more.” John Claude Shaffer, a junior who is the founder of the Elder Outreach Club, says he was inspired by the idea that South County High is right across the street from Harmony at Spring Hill senior living center. “I thought what a great opportunity to have people in our school community write to people directly across the street,” Shaffer said. “We wanted to ensure more elders in the proximity of our school feel love and know they are supported by people who live around them.” Shaffer reached out to his friends, who then reached out to their friends, and eventually the group grew to include students at Bishop Ireton Catholic High School as well. Recently, Shaffer, a pianist, was able to visit the center in-person to play piano for residents and meet some of the people he had been corresponding with in person. “I played Chaupin, Etude #3 -- they loved it so much, at the end they yelled Encore, Encore!,” Shaffer said. “It was an amazing experience.” The club, which started during the pandemic, attracted lots of interest from students who were still learning virtually, helping them empathize with the concept of isolation, librarian Romney said.
“It was easy for people to understand how valuable it would be, because so many people had to alter their lives, and experience loneliness, in order to stay safe,” Romney said.
The South County High Library has served as a vehicle for service projects of all kinds, exactly as Romney says a school library should. Aside from assisting students who knit hats for the homeless or make blankets for shelter animals, Romney says her duties can include helping proofread student work, instructing classes on how to research for history projects, enabling students to print out documents and locate other services in the building.
“One of the things I love about being a librarian, after transitioning from working as a classroom teacher with typically 120 students, is that now every student is mine,” Romney said. “I get to take ownership for having a relationship with every student in the school. We librarians like the idea of helping students not just find something to read, but thinking about what else they may need as well.”