By Rebecca Jones

Only a few short years ago, anyone walking through the doors of a library would encounter an austere desk, manned by an imposing figure. If you dare bring your voice above a whisper, a pointy finger would press against the lips of a librarian, emitting an all-too familiar, “Shh!”

The Laurel Public Library has become a one-stop place for the community to meet, plus attain help from a wide variety of civic and federal organizations. “We welcome everyone – rich or poor, young or old. If you need to get out of the heat in the summer or the cold of the winter, we want to say to you, ‘You’re always welcome, here – as long as you obey the rules.’ And of course, we still have books,” said Gail Bruce, director of the Laurel Public Library. 

Pictured are the community food carts at the Laurel Public Library. Photo by Rebecca Jones

As a result of various grants, the Laurel Public Library is part of the “You’re Valued Initiative.” Some of the grants are designed to help small and rural community libraries such as Laurel to transform the lives of those in the communities they serve. The “You’re Valued Initiative” was founded in partnership with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and the American Libraries Association. On a brochure outlining the initiative, it states, “The Laurel Public Library is here to help connect you to resources you need by creating safe avenues and inspiring hope.”

Part of supplying hope, Laurel now offers a telehealth kiosk, year-round free meals for children, programs for people of all ages, as well as community food carts and hygiene stations. In the previously mentioned brochure, the library also connects the public to over 100 organizations a person with a certain type of need can contact for help.

Bruce is especially pleased with the food cart initiative and hygiene stations. As she referred to the community food carts, Bruce said, “This is something near and dear to my heart. We’ve received good feedback from the community; they’ve been extremely generous. And people in need tend to take only what they need. It’s just neighbors helping out neighbors.”

The food cart initiative first began around the time COVID began. Before the pandemic, the library received a grant from WalMart for a class entitled, “How to Cook Healthy Dinners on a Budget Using Local Produce.” Then COVID hit. “So, we shifted gears to find out what we could do.” 

From fresh eggs from local farmers and produce from farm stands, to donations of garden produce and non-perishables from local members of the community, those who find themselves in a situation they never expected to be in can take what they need to feed themselves and their families. To access the food cart, those in need do not need to go inside the library and ask. 

The food carts, which are available to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, will soon be replaced by a more permanent structure. “Pastor Rob from Vital Church knew someone who is able to weld for us a farm-style stand that is bigger and heavier than what we have outside right now,” Director Bruce said. “It’ll be easier to access, to reach the items available to the community. It’s been amazing, seeing our community just being there for each other.”

It’s the same idea behind the Laurel Public Library’s hygiene stations in the bathrooms. Through an initial grant, then through donations, the library has given dignity back to those who are in need of hygienic items. Hanging shoebags are secured in the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Placed inside the pockets of those shoebags are travel-sized items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, as well as shampoos, soaps, tissues, lotions, and more. In addition, there are brochures included in various pockets that pertain to receiving vital services designed to help those in a displaced or dangerous situation. 

“Even when closed for COVID, we would put together hygiene bags and put those in the food carts to make them accessible to those who needed it,” Bruce stated. “In a small town like Laurel, people cannot always have access to help services. We are literally in the middle of town, and if we can help our community with a need, we will do our best to fulfill it.” 

For more information, or to help, contact the Laurel Public Library at 302-875-3184 or visit laurel.lib.de.us.