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Local News

Berwyn Free Library Initiative takes off in 5th Ward

BERWYN – Residents in Berwyn’s 5th Ward now have access to free books, thanks to the Berwyn Free Library Initiative, which recently installed seven free libraries throughout the ward.

Community members can share books through the book banks, which carry between 20 and 30 books each, and are totally free and available to everyone.

About 30 adults and youth volunteers spent the afternoon of May 26 installing and stocking the libraries, which have at least 25 percent children’s books and at least 25 percent Spanish books. The initiative is the idea of Berwyn native and 5th Ward resident Rob Pabon, 32, who has been working on the free library project since January. He said the goal is to increase literacy among Berwyn residents.

“The motto is ‘take a book, leave a book,’ but anyone can take one, even if they don’t have one to leave,” he said. “Literacy is an issue in Berwyn, and I’m passionate about increasing access and bringing opportunity to folks. This is a dynamic community, and we’re working with a ton of community partners and community members who’ve been a huge force in this initiative.”

Pabon and his wife, Alejandra Pabon, worked closely with the Berwyn Public Library and 5th Ward alderman Cesar Santoy to make the project a reality. The library donated books and helped sort and organize books collected from the community during an April drive. Berwyn artist Britton Walters designed all of the book banks with different themes, while residents painted them. The seven libraries are located on residents’ properties, and those residents will be responsible for caring for them and making sure they’re stocked with books.

Santoy said he enjoys working on community-building projects like the Berwyn Free Library Initiative because it brings together all facets of the community. He said city officials, residents, library staff and student volunteers all worked together on the library installations.

“We had a great cross-section of Berwyn represented,” he said. “Statistics show that access to books leads to a better social fabric and better social standing later in life. Children who read from an early age show better development in school.”

Pabon, who works as a project manager at a nonprofit organization in Chicago, said while growing up in the 5th Ward, he felt “disconnected” to other areas of Berwyn he felt had more resources. As he got older, he decided he wanted to do something to help enrich the lives of the residents in his north Berwyn neighborhood.

“While walking to the [train station] in Oak Park, I noticed all of the free libraries and thought it would be a great way to increase literacy in Berwyn,” he said. “I’ve worked with local youth and I saw their struggles and challenges in education and literacy, and that fueled my fire to do something in the community.”

Some of the struggles, Pabon said, were a lack of books for Spanish-speaking families, which is why the libraries must have Spanish books. Alejandra Pabon, who is a bilingual teacher in Bensenville, said that is the most important aspect of the project to her.

“I’ve seen how many students don’t have bilingual resources, and I’m excited that people in these neighborhoods will have books in Spanish,” she said. “We’re getting chapter books and picture books in Spanish, and that’s a great way for parents to get more involved in their children’s education. It’s not always easy to get your hands on a chapter book in Spanish for older kids. [The libraries] are such great opportunities for the community to have literacy at their fingertips.”

Rob Pabon hopes to have at least 20 free libraries in all Berwyn wards by 2020, and he said another goal of the initiative is to encourage residents to visit the Berwyn Public Library regularly and take advantage of its many resources.

“We want to drive people to utilize the public library. That’s our lead agency when it comes to impact,” he said. “We’re all working toward the common goal of accessing books and literacy, and we want everyone to feel comfortable going to the library.”

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Free library locations

• 13th Street and Cuyler Avenue

• 14th Street and Cuyler Avenue

• 15th Street and Lombard Avenue

• 19th Street and Highland Avenue (Hett Park)

• 21st Street and Ridgeland Avenue

• 23rd Street and Harvey Avenue

• 23rd Street and Elmwood Avenue

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