Storytime links preschoolers with special ed students in downtown Farmington public library

Each Tuesday morning, in the lower level of downtown Farmington’s public library, an unabashedly joyful, hug-filled reunion happens in the children’s department.

For that’s when a group of young adult students from Visions Unlimited – Farmington Public Schools’ post-secondary school for students (ages 18 to 26) with physical and/or developmental disabilities – arrive to not just attend, but be an active part of, the library’s weekly preschool storytime.

“(Max) tells everybody about his Tuesday library job,” says VU parent Colleen Van Camp. “He reads to preschoolers and often helps with puppets and other toys that incorporate the children’s story. It has given him confidence, purpose, social skills, responsibility, and pure joy.”

Maria Showich-Gallup leads Visions Unlimited storytime. Photo by Nick Hagen.

The community partnership between the library and VU began about seven years ago, when a para-pro brought her own children to storytime and asked children’s librarian Maria Showich-Gallup about possibly, in the future, bringing a couple of VU students to help out.

“In the back of my head, this voice was saying, ‘Don’t say no, don’t say no, don’t say no,’” says Showich-Gallup, who’s worked at Farmington’s downtown library for 19 years. “So then I told her, ‘Let’s start off with students doing the nursery rhyme,’ … and it just grew from there. … I was never so happy in my life to have not said ‘no.’ … It became such a win-win. The library staff and families that come to storytime probably get even more out of it than the (VU) students do.”

“We see the same kids each week, so we learn kids’ names, and they say ‘hi’ to us, and the parents are always happy to see us, too,” says VU teacher Lisa Wiltrakis.

Maria Showich-Gallup leads Visions Unlimited storytime. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“It’s a great place to be, and it puts us all in our happy place,” says a VU student named Alexandria.

VU, located on Freedom Road, aims to give students opportunities to acquire skills, grow more independent, and be part of the local community. In addition to the library, VU students regularly help out (and sell crafts) at Northville’s Mod Market; volunteer at Farmington C.A.R.E.S., sorting donated clothing, food, etc.; and visit businesses like Target, Fresh Thyme, the post office and more to hear about what it’s like to work in these places. Sometimes, they even travel by Smart Bus in order to learn how to navigate their way around town.

And one recently launched outgrowth of VU’s positive relationship with the library involves a weekly, on-site book discussion group, helmed by children’s librarian Rebecca Ross.

“I read an article in School Library Journal about book groups that were started specifically for people with disabilities, because many times, as the article stated, they don’t feel welcome,” says Ross. “We have such a good relationship with Visions, and I thought this could make that even stronger. They come here for storytime, so I thought we could bring something to them.”

Plus, VU students regularly create hand-crafted items they can sell to raise money for their programs, and this past year, they’ve held sales – in advance of Mother’s Day and the year-end holidays – in Farmington’s downtown library event/meeting room. (Another one will happen, in fact, later this fall.)

Visions Unlimited storytime.

“Our students have more challenges than most people, and helping them find things they are good at, and things they can be successful at, is important,” said VU special education para-pro Dara Weber. “ … They create beautiful things – cards, sun catchers, yard art, paper, and coasters. When they see something they either helped make or an idea that they came up with getting turned into something tangible, it is a source of pride.”

VU students also have the ability to sometimes turn a less-than-optimal situation around. One VU student, who has since graduated from the program, came (with her family) dressed as Peter Pan to a library event that was supposed to be a meet-and-greet with Tinkerbell. When the fairy failed to appear, Showich-Gallup asked the student if she’d be willing to pose in a few photos with kids in attendance.

“She said yes,” says Showich-Gallup. “She didn’t want to wear her hat, but that was OK. And she was just someone who liked to come to library programs beyond storytime and help.”

Showich-Gallup and her fellow children’s librarians often visit VU for special events and programs, continuing to build on the warm friendship forged at the library’s storytime.

“Our librarians see things differently,” says Weber. “They see people (as) being able to learn, no matter their age or appearance. They don’t have pre-set filters. In their eyes, we are all learners.”

The admiration is definitely mutual.

“(VU students) come here, and they’re just always so happy,” says Showich-Gallup. “They bring us so much joy. They always have a really good attitude about things, and we’re so happy to see them that I always think, no matter what’s going on, if they’re coming, today’s going to be a great day.”