WIC, Wellness, and Libraries

Presentations on health literacy and outreach at PLA

March 26, 2018

Elizabeth Sargent (left), associate director of customer experience at Houston Public Library, speaks about her experience using the WIC center at Stimley-Blue Ridge.
Elizabeth Sargent (left), associate director of customer experience at Houston Public Library, speaks about her experience using the WIC center at Stimley-Blue Ridge.

For years, public librarians have engaged in health literacy by developing programs focusing on exercise, healthy eating, insurance sign-up, and financial planning. But at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia, two public libraries spoke about how they recently expanded their health literacy efforts beyond public programming.

Staff members of Houston Public Library (HPL) discusses the WIC food and nutrition center in one of their branches in the session “What Having a WIC Center in Your Library Brings (Besides Crying Babies)” on March 22. Drew Alvey, manager of HPL’s Stimley-Blue Ridge branch, spoke of the WIC center project consisting of three overlapping tasks: partnering, planning, and implementation. From the start, the library and the health department set out to develop not just a relationship but a true partnership that was mutually beneficial. For this to happen, Alvey said it was important to “communicate clearly and early: This is what we need, and this is what we can give you.”

For instance, the library would benefit by the influx of new customers, and the WIC center would benefit by inheriting a stronger outreach network from the library’s previously established contacts. Because of the success of this partnership, HPL was able to garner enough support to offer a variety of services in addition to the WIC center, including an afterschool program that serves hot food, a series of parenting classes, and exercise classes for seniors.

The addition of a WIC center brought new patrons and programs to HPL, but at Pioneer Library System (PLS) in Norman, Oklahoma, staff members sought to address the needs of their most steady customers of all: the employees. As PLS Regional Coordinator Aiden Street said, “We program for our communities every day—don’t forget the community of employees.”

The wellness program at PLS—subject of the session “Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Creating Inclusive and Sustainable Employee Wellness Initiatives” on March 23—set out to address physical, mental, and financial health through a series of workshops, policy changes, and small but steady shifts in culture. Some of their more unique offerings include financial boot camps with free credit report analysis, required activity breaks for meetings that last longer than one hour, and wellness leave, which is separate from sick leave and gives employees time off to go to doctor’s appointments.

Creating a well workplace requires employers to focus on the whole employee and to consider the lives employees lead outside of work. Some best practices PLS’s wellness team has identified include encouraging a grassroots, “trickle-up” approach for promoting the wellness activities, and reinforcing that all such activities are opt-in, not opt-out, meaning that they’re not required and that participation is not being monitored by upper management.

Health and wellness issues are relevant to everyone, and libraries, as trusted places in their communities, can provide innovative and effective programming that can improve well-being. HPL’s Alvey said, “We’re big swoopers at my branch. We look for people who might need help and swoop in to do so.” By taking the opportunity to swoop in and address critical issues in their communities, public libraries can establish themselves as natural partners in wellness initiatives and work towards creating healthier futures for their communities.

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