As a kid growing up in Shaler, you could bet on finding Lisa Seel at the local library, whether for reading programs, storytime, or just milling around looking for the next big book.
Says Seel, “My love of knowledge acquisition, my love of reading, my love of creativity, all stems from library interactions I had as a kid.”
As an adult and the Vice President of the Millvale Community Library Board of Trustees, Seel knows that not every kid is given the opportunities she did, especially as things such as school resources continue to dwindle. “I really want to give other kids that opportunity,” she says. Through the library, she and her fellow volunteers (the only paid position is the librarian) are always on the lookout for “anything we can provide to supplement their education and their lives.”
Seel began helping with the library project in 2010. She had been considering retiring from teaching the fifth grade, but still wanted a way to productively use her time. As chance would have it, she met library co-founder Brian Wolovich at a community gardening event and was introduced to the empty building and the other people interested in the library effort. “It’s such a wonderful group of people who are passionate,” says Seel. She was able to utilize her writing and communications background to help with grants and marking as well as a few skills she didn’t know she had. “From renovating the space to planning summer programming to painting to picking out fixtures, we all pitched in.”
Weekends and weeknights prior to the library’s opening were filled with the physical labor of removing walls—more excitingly—sorting through books. Oodles of books culled from closing schools, private donations, and grant funding. “It was much more labor-intensive than I ever imagined,” Seel says. “It’s been a very eye-opening experience.”
Part of what drives Seel, besides her overall love of learning, is having raised two kids in the nearby Shaler system, the younger of whom graduates from high school this year. “It’s important that the entire system works properly,” she says. In this way, the library is but one aspect of the larger community, which includes spaces such as the garden and the Riverfront.
The library acts out its part of the system in myriad ways. As a building, it’s entirely solar-powered. As a more philosophical space, Seel says, “I want the relationship with the community to flourish. We really want to be that resource and activity hub for everybody–seniors and families and kids,” both educational and fun.
Seel works toward this end by coordinating programming. Even when the library didn’t have a building permit yet, they organized first at Riverfront Park for eight weeks in the summer of 2011 in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club. With the help of volunteers–including her own children–the library was able to offer activities such as read aloud time and reader theater.
That fall, Seel moved her troops to the backyard of the library. Finally, in 2014, they’ve actually been able to operate inside of the library, giving them access to programming during the long, cold winter. They’ve done a litany of reading activities and crafts across the age groups. Once a week, the Children’s Museum arrives with a portable version of its Makeshop, which teaches children the basics of textiles and tools and gives them to chance to just create. The library also serves as a host site for the Remake Learning Digital Corps, a program that connects digital learning mentors with afterschool programs to introduce kids to new digital learning tools like Scratch to explore the building blocks of computer programming and robotics.
“The kids are excited to do anything a little out of their ordinary,” Seel says. “Never having had a library at Millvale, some of the kids hadn’t been exposed to library and crafts. Especially in the summertime, without school, they maybe don’t have the opportunity.”
What Seel is most proud of is how the library allows for kids to voice their wants and needs for activities. “The kids themselves are enthusiastic, they’re open to just about anything,” says Seel. “They don’t necessarily have any pre-conceived notions of what we should be doing at the library, so they really take ownership.”
Through that openness, the library has gained a teen reading group that has decided to work their way through the entire Harry Potter series. The group gets together once a week with a volunteer leader from Pitt to discuss the books–they’re already on the fourth–and do associated activities. At the completion of each book, they watch the movie version.
Even though the Harry Potter books are her favorite, and she’ll be a little sad when the group finishes, Seel knows that more great things are headed for the Millvale Community Library and for Millvale in general. “There are so many caring people. There are so many people willing to help out anyway they can.”