Forces unexpectedly combined at Southern Arkansas University in 2011 to create a bit of a miracle for the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The story begins with graduate students in Peggy Walters’ masters of education program: Library Media and Information Specialist (LMIS).
For years as part of her class, LMIS students have spent a summer session putting their learned skills to work to help school libraries around the region. According to Walters, there is no better way for future library and media specialists to get hands-on experience putting what they learn into practical action.
“There is no other way to learn how to manage their own libraries other than to roll up their sleeves and take on a project like this,” said Walters. “It gives them the knowledge and ability to make things happen when they get their own libraries.”
Camden, Bismark, Hamburg, Blevins, Magnolia and other school systems around the southern portion of the state have benefitted from their completely volunteer projects for class credit.
“In the past, we had to load up on buses and drive to the destinations during the day and return at night,” said Walters. “The projects usually involved reorganization, collection management or moving shelves around. It was just us and good old hard work.”
Other schools in other parts of the state have requested help, but the distance created an impossible situation without funding for lodging expenses. Student Maranda Cole suggested the ASBVI library for the year’s project. Cole offered the dorms on the Little Rock campus for housing, which are empty in the summer.
“Access to the dorms meant that travel was not an issue or a burden of expense for our 40 students in the class who do the work,” she said. “That also allowed us to help a school in Beebe. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Another fortunate conversation with Michael Woods, director for SAU’s Fincher Hall – a freshman honors residence hall with a mission of service – sparked into action another underestimated force on campus. Each year, students who live in Fincher Hall dedicate their time and fund-raising efforts toward a worthy cause. Woods offered to put that mission of service to work to raise money for the ASBVI.
“He said, ‘how much do you need,’” she recounted. “It was such an unexpected offer. I never had anyone ask me that before. It was always just us doing these things by ourselves. I said, ‘$50.’ I had no idea!”
Woods just smiled. Fincher Hall and Honors Hall residents organized events, like the Honors Haul 5K run, and the Fincher Hall art project, which combined efforts of students and community children with the creative forces of Director of Alumni Relations Ceil Bridges.
By the time the check was presented to ASBVI Superintendent Jim Hill, Principal Sharon Berry and Librarian Cole, the amount raised was $32,126. Follett Software Company contributed a new library resource management system, Southern Aluminum of Magnolia donated computer tables and SAU departments donated furniture and provided access to equipment. Because the project was in tune with its mission to help sight impaired, the Magnolia Lion’s Club also donated $2,000 toward the project.
For 10 hours each day during two weeks of the summer session, Walters’ class members and Magale Library Public Services Librarian Del Duke went to work evaluating and sorting through the Little Rock school’s collection of materials.
“It was an overwhelming task,” said Walters. “It’s hard to let go of books because people know they have value, but we found a book that talked about one day landing on the moon! Libraries need to be up-to-date information, especially a school library where our kids are getting educated.”
The $32,000 gift also allowed ASBVI to purchase computers and new technology that put valuable information – literally – at the fingertips of the visually impaired students the school serves.
Cole was grateful for the help in the monumental task and was pleased with the results.
“It makes me so proud to know that the students will return this year and have access to digital technology and the expanded collection. They will finally get to read contemporary works and information that had not been available to them,” she said.
New technology and equipment make books in Braille format available, opening up a world of information not formerly within reach of those who take advantage of the library and its resources.
Hill was pleased with the efforts of the SAU students.
“Fincher Hall is the learning and living hall, and I’m impressed with the living example they exhibited. It shows a lot of heart and renews my faith in young people,” he said at the time the check was presented.
ASBVI students returned last fall to discover the newly renovated library and the fruits of the hard labor donated by SAU students.
“The initial reaction – to put it in simple terms – was ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’ It absolutely has transformed the atmosphere in the library and provided the new librarian (Cole) motivation,” said Hill. “She is continuing to go above and beyond with what the students started and is carrying it forward to the benefit of our kids. We now have a facility that provides greater utility and access to the materials. It’s fantastic!”
Hill was exuberant when he talked of the end result of the hard work, which included a hand-painted mural on the wall.
“We’ve never had anyone come in and do this much for us – ever. They did it all,” he said. “It was amazing and done in such a short time. It was a project of the greatest magnitude, well orchestrated and done in record time.”