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After starting programs for autistic students, Lisle Library worker is honored with state award

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Life at the Lisle Library isn’t all about books and periodicals. For Vicki Rakowski, it’s also about ensuring that children feel like they belong at the library — including those with autism and other developmental challenges.

Rakowski, 32, works as the assistant director of youth services, which means organizing reading times and craft projects for the library’s youngest patrons. But she also organizes outreach activities for special needs children, including a developmental program at Tate Woods Elementary School and Giant Steps, a Lisle-based organization that provides educational programs for autistic children.

Rakowski said making sure children with autism and other developmental issues feel like they’re part of the library is one of her primary goals.

“The library is about more than books, it’s about community engagement and making them feel like they’re involved,” she said. “It’s important for children with autism and their family members to see someone is thinking about them and making them feel welcome.”

That outreach work is one reason why Rakowski picked up the Illinois Library Association’s prestigious Golden Ticket Award last month during a ceremony in Peoria. It’s presented to those who make an “outstanding contribution in library services to young people” by creating programs that “promote a love of literature and instill positive feelings about libraries,” according to the ILA website.

Lindsey Dorfman, the library’s director of youth services, nominated Rakowski because she wanted to recognize her work with autistic children. In addition, Rakowski developed the library’s Baby Bounce storytime program that includes developmentally appropriate activities for infants. 

“People using the library know what an asset she is,” Dorfman said.

Rakowski got involved with autistic children two years ago after her department was approached by staff members at Giant Steps to develop a storytime program for their students. Rakowski drew on her background teaching English as a second language in the former Czech Republic to help her design story programs for Giant Steps to make reading fun. She said it was important to keep any language she used precise rather than verbose.

So far, the program has been successful, although she said at times it’s not always easy to see. 

“It can be difficult working with autistic children because they don’t always give you the reaction you’re used to,” she said. “You just have to trust sometimes that what you’re doing is meaningful to them.” Her trust has been confirmed by several parents who tell her their children often speak fondly of her after a storytime program.

She said several students from Giant Steps now come to the library for stories and other activities. When they come to the library, and recognize her, she said they often feel the library is a place for them. “Being a face they recognize is important because it lets them know the library is part of their life,” she said.

Being recognized by young patrons is now part of Rakowski’s routines. As she walked around her department one day last week, she met with eager calls of “Hey Miss Vicki” from elementary-aged patrons.

That kind of reaction is not uncommon, Dorfman said.

“I often hear people say that Miss Vicki is their favorite librarian,” Dorfman said.

And it appears young people aren’t her only fans. Sandra Knight, who has a child in one of Rakowski’s reading groups, also approves of Rakowski’s work.

“She’s awesome,” Knight said of Rakowski.

Rakowski started with the Lisle library in 2009 as she was finishing a master’s degree in library sciences form Dominican College. During her studies, she took a course on children’s library services and knew it was what she wanted to do as a career.

“This is the most fun place to work,” she said. “All you have to do is turn and there are shelves of books with answers to all of your questions.”

About Vicki RakowskiAge: 32Occupation: Assistant director of youth services, Lisle Public LibraryHometown: Oak ParkEducation: MFA, Western Michigan University, 2005; MLS Dominican University, 2010Hobbies: Reading, knitting, baking, movies

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