Library programs for immigrants and those with disabilities see huge growth in Surrey

Author Sharon Rowe has Surrey Libraries to thank for empowering her to become an author

Sharon Rowe (right) holds up her book

SURREY — As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. But Surrey’s chief librarian Surinder Bhogal will tell you “it takes a library to raise a community.”

Surrey Libraries released its 2016 Literacy Day report on Sept. 8, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, and revealed an increase in residents walking through their doors.

The report notes that more than 2.4 million people visited Surrey Libraries in 2015, translating to more than 7,000 people visiting branches every single day. That’s an 11 per cent increase from five years ago when the City Centre Library first opened its doors.

“A typical day in the library, the number of people that are here and the diversity of the people that are here is amazing. From someone that is brand new to Surrey wanting to learn how to connect or some of the newcomers and Syrian families,” said Bhogal.

“The library is a neutral place,” she added. “As an immigrant myself, I’ve been in Canada for 20 years now and to visit (the library), because you see all walks of life, is an important thing. It’s free, many people from other countries don’t realize it’s free. You can learn a new skill if you’re feeling isolated, you can connect with others in your neighbourhood, for kids early literacy is such a huge thing.”

Since the City Centre Library opened in 2011 ESL programming increased by more than 50 per cent, Bhogal noted, and the community outreach program launched in 2011 assisted nearly 3,000 low-income and vulnerable people with access to books and services last year.

In that time there’s also been a 50 per cent increase in participants in library programming directed at immigrants.

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But the library program that’s seen the largest growth are those directed at people with developmental disabilities, Bhogal revealed.

Stories for People with Development Disabilities (SPDD) is a literacy program sparked by library technician Linda Jones to help people learn important skills like sign language and to engage with books.

This year marks the program’s fifth anniversary and the number of participants have skyrocketed from 318 to 2,882.

“It makes the library a positive and welcoming place for people facing a great amount of prejudice in society,” said Jones. “It’s empowering.”

Sharon Rowe (pictured) can attest to that.

The New Westminster resident has Trisomy 13, a chromosomal condition associated with intellectual disability and physical abnormalities in the body.

She is a longtime participant in the SPDD program and now, an author. Rowe beams as she holds up her book, The Big Bessie Stories.

Caregiver Ariadne Sawyer often speaks for her because as she says, Rowe gets “brain tired.”

“When she was about five we were able to take her to a specialist and she said she would be in an institution by the time she was 12 and would be totally non-functional,” said Sawyer. “But I did a lot of brain research and I do a lot of work with neurotherapy.”

Sawyer encouraged her to write a story after she noticed Rowe take an interest in HandyDart buses.

“Because of conversational difficulties and cleft palette and not having that repaired early on enough, her speech has always been difficult. It took me four hours to decipher her story. It was sort of like 21 questions,” explained Sawyer.

That birthed the “Big Bessie” character in Rowe’s book, who is a bus.

“Her goal has always been to turn it into a book and she’s achieved that, thanks to the Surrey library system and the class,” said Sawyer.” It’s been incredible.”

Rowe is not only an author, but is also now leading workshops to help others find their creative voice. They’re aimed at “especially” abled people of all levels. The next one is coming up at Surrey Centre Library on Oct. 14 at 1:30 p.m.

For more information and registration, email ariadnes@uniserve.com.

Click here for more information on Rowe’s book.

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com