Value of Akron-Summit County Library is priceless

Carl Sagan once said, “Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.”

Today, libraries still provide materials and programs to encourage literacy, but they also provide many other significant services to communities, including, but not limited to, free access to computers and the internet, as well as programming for all ages, from babies to seniors.

And, importantly, public libraries have become the de facto after-school program and day care for many latchkey children nationwide.

Many lifelong Ohioans may not know that our libraries overwhelmingly provide better services and materials than those in other states. I hear this frequently from people new to Ohio.

Funding is key to why we have such great library systems in Ohio. It allows for the creation and continuation of another anchor in our communities, along with schools, places of worship and businesses.

And within these anchors are dedicated librarians and staff. I sometimes wonder if they all must pass an empathy and kindness test before being hired.

My second son, Hugo, now 24, attended middle school at Miller South School for the Arts. After school most days, he carried his backpack loaded with books and his saxophone case down a hill and across a field to the nearby Vernon Odom library branch.

During the years Hugo was at Miller South, I had three kids in three different schools. The commute took over an hour, twice daily. Mornings were harried as I tried to get everyone to school on time. Afternoons, not so much because Hugo would safely work and play with friends at the library until I arrived.

When I’d walk in to find Hugo, I observed librarians taking their nonfunded mission seriously, providing extra programming, leading book clubs, holding craft events, game days and, once a week, showing movies to the Miller South students who filled the building.

One Mother’s Day, Hugo gave me a bar of lavender soap he’d made at the library. Not only did I love receiving a gift Hugo had handcrafted, he felt excited the way one does when giving the perfect gift.

A few years ago, the Akron-Summit County Public Library system partnered with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank to provide nutritious snacks for the after-school kids, some of whom eat their school lunches as early as 10:30 in the morning. This program was necessarily paused during the pandemic, but according to the library system’s executive director, Pam Hickson-Stevenson, it is expected to resume when possible.

Since 2003, the branch we’ve most patronized is at Highland Square. The librarians know my five children by name and frequently ask me about my adult children.

One of my favorite librarians at the Highland Square branch was a woman named Amy. She had short dark hair, one of those Demi Moore gravelly voices and a wry sense of humor.

Several years ago, I noticed the display case near the entrance was filled with photos of Amy and her son. When I asked another librarian about it, she said, “Well, I don’t know if you know, but Amy lost her son not long ago.”

I did know. He was the light of her life, which she took after cancer stole him from her. I ugly-cried right there at the checkout desk while the librarian, who knew Amy far better than I did and who was still processing her own grief, comforted me.

Last fall, I took my graduate students from the University of Akron to the Main Library to show them how to do grant research using the Foundation Center directory, which is an excellent web-based service. But the website is not free, that is, except at Ohio libraries, which pay a fee to make it available to patrons without charge.

However, the website was not working that night, something two very concerned librarians determined after I’d alerted them that we were unable to log on. Fortunately, I’d also invited a professional grant writer to talk with my students, so the class was not a wash.

Then, for the next two weeks, I received regular updates from librarians until the website was once again available, each call peppered with unnecessary apologies.

On the ballot in the upcoming May 4 election is a renewal of the levy that accounts for 55% of Akron-Summit County Public Library’s funding. Without passage of the levy, it’s safe to assume that jobs would be eliminated, hours of operation would be slashed and, with such drastic cuts, after-school hours and programming would shrink.

Because the levy is a renewal, it will not increase taxes. (Frankly, if it were up to me, I’d give the library a bump up in its funding.)

The levy costs homeowners $4.21 per $100,000 in home value per month. That’s basement-bargain pricing for a priceless resource in our communities. Please vote yes to the continued funding of our amazing library system.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 18, 2021.


The only constant in life is change

This is the fifth year in which I have shared with Akron Beacon Journal readers stories about my five children and our lives. 

I have two batches of offspring: my now-adult sons, Claude, Hugo and Jules, from a previous marriage, and my caboose troupe, Leif and Lyra. The father of the last two, Max, has been a constant in the lives of my first three children for 13 years. 

Long before our first kiss, Max and I were friends. A colleague at his law office invited him to our book club intending to set him up with another friend in the group. That didn’t pan out, but Max continued to attend and, as a former English professor, brought added insights to the book club conversations. 

At some point, I asked Max to join me on the board of an arts nonprofit of which I was president. Eventually we found ourselves working together on the difficult task of winding down the organization, which is how we became good friends. 

A year after I left the big boys’ father, Max asked me on a more-than-friends date. At the time, two other recently divorced women I knew were turning to dating websites to find eligible bachelors. Their results ranged from underwhelming to atrocious. I felt lucky to date a friend.  

Even after our relationship became committed, Max and I maintained separate households until our son Leif was 2 years old. That’s when Max bought a house in Akron big enough for all of us and we smushed the contents of two 2,500-square-foot houses into one with 3,000 square feet. Lyra arrived a year later and the house was full of children until the big boys began cycling out for college.  

Life is a continuum of change.  

Without going into any details, for the past few years Max and I have been trying to resolve some issues in our relationship. Last summer, we decided the resolution to these issues was to return to living separately. 

In order for me to move into my home, which Max began renting in 2015 as his law office, he first had to move his business to his home. Since then, and thanks in part to the stimulus money, I have made both necessary and pleasing improvements to what I call my “lady house” where I have lived since last fall. 

When Max and I became a couple, I told myself there are no do-overs. Then we had babies and I felt I did have a do-over. I’ve now parented with a man who takes an active role in the lives of our two children as well as my three boys. (For the past six years, the big boys’ father has not attempted to see them and has contacted them but a handful of times.) 

Now I’ve gotten a do-over in breaking up. Where my ex-husband was extremely difficult to divorce (it took over three years) and did so with a scorched-earth approach, Max and I have calmly worked out our arrangements and helped each other reconfigure our homes.  

As for the children we brought into this world together, they have gone between these two houses their entire lives, which they refer to as “Mama’s house” and “Dadda’s house.” 

Given remote learning due to the pandemic, it has been nigh impossible to set up a regimented custody schedule. Max and I have easily worked together during this most unusual school year to accommodate the needs of the children along with our mutual work schedules. 

This summer, I will again take Leif and Lyra to northern Michigan for two months of day camp on the shores of Lake Michigan. Then, when school resumes next fall, we will establish a custody schedule, the predictability of which is important for everyone, especially the kids. 

I know several readers will be surprised by this separation. Trust me, this was a decision made after long and deep consideration. These past few months I have felt a bit like Barbara Stanwyck’s character in my all-time favorite movie, “Christmas in Connecticut,” in which she’s a family columnist purporting to write from her Connecticut farm where she lives with her husband and baby, when in actuality she’s a single woman in an apartment in New York City. 

The truth is, as with any major relationship change, this has been a process. Until recently I myself did not know how things would play out and only now do I feel able to write about it. 

But this I’ve long known: The true character of a partner is revealed when you leave them. Max will continue to be a loving father invested in his children’s lives and we will continue to raise them together as committed co-parents — now from two homes, 2 miles apart. 

And so begins the next chapter. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 4, 2021.


Spring holds promise of positive change

The arrival of the first warm, sunny days at the end of winter feel full of pleasant promises. Friends, and even strangers in the grocery parking lots, are compelled to comment, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

The renewal of existing gardens and plans for new plants and even new beds are, of course, investments in the regeneration of life after it lay dormant for several months. And how fast it happens! Just two columns ago, I was reveling in all the snow shoveling I was doing; now I’m delighted by crocuses popping up daily.

This year, springtime has me giddier than ever. COVID vaccines are making their way into people’s arms and even before we reach herd immunity, warmer weather will allow outdoor, socially distanced get-togethers to occur.

Like so many, I miss being with friends. FaceTime and text messages cannot replace sharing an evening with others. When has anyone belly laughed in a video conference? I sure haven’t.

Almost a year to the day that they closed, Akron Public Schools reopened for full-time, in-person instruction. My 8-year-old, Lyra, acts like every school day is Christmas, so glad is she to be back with her teachers and friends.

While seeing the light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel, I don’t expect life will pick up exactly where it was when things stopped a year ago. And that can be a good thing.

Hands down, the best change for Lyra is that she gained her very own friend for the first time. Her brother Leif’s friends always have accepted Lyra fully. That said, they are still primarily Leif’s friends.

Jocelyn Burkholder, 10, and Lyra Christensen, 8, stand with their educational pod teacher, Declan McCaslin.

Lyra met 10-year-old Jocelyn Burkholder when they were in the same Dancing Unlimited class at Akron Children’s Hospital a couple of years ago, but they didn’t really interact. The classes, run by Kellie Lightfoot, are a joy-filled hour of structured chaos where Lyra enjoys watching herself dance in the mirror behind the barre while ignoring all other children.

Last August, when we learned the schools wouldn’t reopen for in-person learning, Jocelyn joined the educational pod we created at our home. Now, after seven months of working together with the teacher we hired, Jocie and Lyra have their own true friendship. I know this because they squabble and make up just like all childhood friends do.

Furthermore, I don’t doubt that Lyra will visit Jocie at her house when it’s possible. Only one family has ever offered to have Lyra over without another adult from our family. I understand why:Most parents are unsure of how to treat a child with Down syndrome.

But parents of children with disabilities know exactly what to do with another child with a disability. (Answer: pretty much the same thing you do with typical kids.)

It is clear this past year has permanently altered what education will look like in America. For one thing, remote learning is here to stay in some form or fashion. While it’s important for kids to be physically in a classroom, there are other times when remote learning can augment or replace in-person learning. If a child cannot be at school for whatever reason, that no longer means education must stop.

Secondly, because most students need help regaining what was lost this past year, strides are being made to help struggling students with the support of federal funding. Many schools will undoubtedly create new infrastructures to solve educational problems that have held back students of all backgrounds for far too long.

There’s also talk of better mental health resources, buildings and funding for public K-12 schools. This is fabulous for there is no better way to address a variety of systemic problems in any country than by providing equal access to quality education.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a recent column on Bangladesh, a country that Henry Kissinger called a “basket case” 50 years ago. Today, Bangladesh has a robust economy and its citizens are vastly healthier. How did they do this? By providing accessible education to all children, including girls.

It’s often hard to get politicians to support substantive, proven plans to address systemic problems if the results are not immediate. But the COVID-19 global pandemic has been a cataclysmic event that refuses to allow anyone to just carry on. And therein lies the opportunity to re-create many things anew and better.

Am I glad there was a pandemic? Of course not. But since there was, how can we address the systemic problems it exposed while fixing the new ones it caused, thereby creating a better future for everyone?

Personally, I no longer take for granted many things I once did. Today, as COVID risks recede and positive changes are hopefully embraced, things are shaping up for a most promising spring and beyond.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 18, 2021.