June 18, 2020
Story by Misty Jackson-Miller. Photos by Kirsten Chilstrom.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer. With summer camps cancelled and travel plans on hold, with a spring semester that ended on a screen and a fall semester that is looming on the calendar like a question mark, parents are not only trying to figure out how to keep their kids busy this summer, but how to keep them engaged and curious. For many families, the launch of Dallas Public Library’s annual summer reading program, SMART Summer with Mayor Johnson, couldn’t have come at a better time.
Students 18 or younger who read, or are read to, at least 20 minutes a day will earn a free book for every 10 days of reading, up to five times through August 15. When students have read for 50 days, they will be entered into grand prize drawings for a chance to win gift cards, tablets, and games, with prizes for every age group. Completing virtual challenges will also increase their chances of winning.
“This is one of our most important projects each year,” says Mary Wilonsky, Executive Director of Friends of the Dallas Public Library. “It’s so gratifying to know that through SMART Summer, kids of all ages can have fun, win prizes and maintain their enthusiasm for reading and learning all summer long.”
SMART Summer is sponsored and organized by Friends. Friends is the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Dallas public libraries through fundraising and advocacy. It was founded in 1950 “to protect and defend the public library,” says Mary, and this year they are celebrating 70 years of advocacy. They have donated approximately $50 million to the public library system for building renovations and enhancements at all 29 locations, and in the last 10-15 years, Friends has been the primary source of program funding at DPL.
A long-time supporter of public libraries, Mary joined the leadership of Park Forest Library Friends in 2012. Because she often took her son to library programs and activities at Park Forest when he was younger, she considers Park Forest her home branch. That same year, Mary was appointed by former mayor Mike Rawlings to serve on the Dallas Municipal Library Board. From there, she joined Friends of Dallas Public Library in 2013, and has served as executive director since 2017.
At the time of her appointment to the municipal board, Dallas libraries were significantly underfunded, due to budget cuts in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Advocates “worked tirelessly to restore the budget to $34 million,” Mary says. “One of our champions was the late Karen Blumenthal, who was the impetus behind pointing out how neglected our libraries were.”
With the support of Friends and a strong advocacy campaign—”Open Libraries, Unlock Potential!”—DPL secured the funding they needed to better serve residents throughout the city by providing access to resources which might otherwise be limited or cost-prohibitive. “People who do not use the libraries may find it hard to understand, but there are a lot of people out there who can’t just order a book from Amazon.”
Last year, Dallas Public Library was able to provide over 450 thousand hours of computer time to residents, and in September, the City Council approved the purchase of 900 hotspots. The hotspots arrived just before the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect.
“Before March, things were really good,” says Mary. “There were over 400 employees and all 29 branches were firing up. Dallas Public Library was coming alive.” But even during the lockdown, and despite the sweeping furloughs, library staff have been active in pivoting to virtual formatting, making outbound calls to senior cardholders, and ensuring that residents still had access to quality information and resources. “They have truly done amazing things during a very difficult time.”
Likewise, even during the lockdown, Friends of Dallas Public Library has been doing what they do best: actively marshalling community support for the library system. Help a Library Worker Out (HALO-Dallas), inspired by EveryLibrary’s national program, was launched to provide financial assistance to library workers through micro-grants. So far, they have issued more than 70 grants to staff members and “the generosity has outpaced the number of grant requests.”
What makes Friends so successful, according to Mary, is the local, community partnerships they develop. SMART Summer, for example, is sponsored by Pizza Hut and First Books, and “we are so thankful for their support,” says Mary. Last year, in addition to the grand prizes provided by local businesses, over 30 thousand books were distributed through the reading program.
In recent years, public libraries have gained visibility for their central role in their community’s critical social infrastructure—by connecting people with resources like tax preparation workshops, citizenship classes, homeless outreach, and personal enrichment. So for Mary, advocating for public libraries is simple: “libraries are the people’s university.”
To help support your local public library, consider becoming a member of Friends. You can learn more about Friends of Dallas Public Library at supportdpl.org. To register your child in the SMART Summer reading program, visit dallaslibrary.org/smartsummer.