Teen program makes library cool again Print
Feature
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM   
Wednesday, 03 January 2018 19:58

Young people are flocking to the Niederkorn Library in Port Washington in part because of a program that exposes them to the many services it offers

    At a time when people — particularly young people — are thought to be shunning the written word, the Niederkorn Library in Port Washington has become an anomaly.
    The library today is teeming with young people, thanks in part to the library’s Teen Cafe program, which offers a variety of programming aimed at bringing middle and high school students into the library.
    The cafe has reached record numbers recently — in December, groups of 55 and 56 students attended some afternoons — and new middle schoolers have been coming whenever the cafe is open, Library Director Tom Carson told the Library Board recently.
    “I am ecstatic about this fact because it means the library will have future teen cafe students for years to come,” Carson said in his report to the board.
    Harmony Ribbens, the library’s teen services coordinator, noted that since she began working with the Teen Cafe about 1-1/2 years ago, the number of students attending has tripled.
    While the purpose of the Teen Cafe is to get teenagers into the library and familiar with the services it offers in order to foster future library users, Ribbens said the reasons youths attend is for many much more practical.
            “It’s a place for kids to go,” she said. “It’s a safe place for kids to get to know each other, to hang out with friends and relax, to get their homework done or to have food and snacks after school.
    “They don’t have another place to go for things like playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
    The youngsters who attend Teen Cafe run the gamut from gamers to athletes, from special education students to high achievers, from public and private school students to home-schooled youngsters — “it’s a real cross-section,” Ribbens said. “Whoever comes, comes.
    “The cafe gives them a place to meet and mingle,” she said.
    She encourages the high schoolers to help the middle schoolers, and Ribbens, a former special education teacher, helps some of the students herself.
    Ribbens does special programming to draw the teens to the library and the cafe. Some are related to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), like the pumpkin catapult they built at Halloween and the bridges they made out of candy hearts at Valentine’s Day, while others are social, such as the movie nights.
    During the holidays, teens enjoyed a Christmas party, made ornaments and had an indoor snowball fight.
    And, of course, there are reading programs. They added a summer Teen Cafe program that followed summer school classes last year that Ribbens said was really successful, and they are participating in the Milwaukee Bucks reading challenge, which runs through Feb. 5.
    But, said Ribbens, “there’s no pressure. I don’t push programs down their throats.”
    Ribbens has actively promoted the Teen Cafe during her tenure, doing outreach with the schools — including scheduling a field trip to the library for high school classes last year.
    “We talked about the services we offer teens, tell them about the resources that we have here,” she said. “It really helped.
    “You know, they have their computers and they sometimes forget we have books.”
    Kids also feel intimidated by the adults in the library, Ribbens said, and the Teen Cafe is a place where they can feel comfortable while using the library’s resources.
    “I’ve signed kids up for library cards. I’ve helped them research projects,” she said. “Some of them are really intimidated by the adults, and we try to get them over that.”
    The Teen Cafe, which is supported by the Friends of the Niederkorn Library, is held twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. in the community room. And when it’s over, or on days when the cafe isn’t running, there’s a booth in the adult library for the youngsters to use.
    Asked why the Teen Cafe is so popular, Ribbens said it’s a place for teens and preteens to be respected in a caring atmosphere.
    “I’m truly interested in them,” she said. “I sit with them. I get to know them. I love kids, and I show interest in their lives. If you care, they care back.”
    She said she makes a point not to yell at the students.
    “I want it to be a fun environment,” she said. And if someone gets too rowdy, the students handle it.
    “The kids are like, ‘Don’t ruin this for us,’” she said. “I have kids who have stuck up for me and for the program. I wish people knew how great the kids are in our community.”
    While the Teen Cafe is a benefit now for the students, it is also viewed as a great way to get the teens involved in the library with the hope they will remain involved well into the future.
    “If we get the kids when they’re young, they’ll keep going as adults,” Ribbens said. “And when they get older and have families, their kids will be part of the Teen Cafe.”