CEDAR RAPIDS — Among the many aspects of Aaron Terrones’s new role at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, his main goal is to create trust.
As the new support services navigator, Terrones works with homeless and other high-barrier clients who frequent the downtown library. He has spent hours on the phone helping an individual obtain a Social Security card; he connects clients with aid from nonprofit agencies; and he even drives people to the hospital.
“In my previous role, I didn’t have that time to work with one individual person,” said Terrones, who started the new duties Jan. 1. “Now at the library, I can spend more time with them.”
The new role stems from a larger initiative the Cedar Rapids Public Library is taking on to help improve health in the community — a project that was made possible through a several thousand dollar grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Cedar Rapids is one of two Iowa cities awarded $25,000 to launch a pilot project called “Harnessing the Power of Iowa’s Libraries,” which aims to supplement the work of public libraries in areas that intersect with county public health goals.
“These are things that truly affect people in our community,” said Dara Schmidt, director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library. “So we’re thinking about how we’re addressing those in a public library setting — which is a place that is open to all, serves people of all ages, from all walks of life, of all socio-economic backgrounds.”
The state public health department received funding for the grants from Telligen Community Initiatives, part of the West Des Moines-based health care management firm Telligen.
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The funding will flow to the library through Linn County Public Health. In partnership with the agency, the library plans to implement new programs or create initiatives that promote health literacy among vulnerable populations.
According to the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, more than 90 million U.S. adults have low health literacy, which refers to the extent an individual can access health services and how well he or she can understand pertinent health information.
A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that 38 percent of Americans sought health information from their library.
That’s because a library “offers a level playing field that is different from most community resources,” Schmidt said.
“For other county and nonprofit support, you need to meet age or income level requirements,” she said. “Rightly so, there are limitations to access resources, but that is not what a public library does. We are exactly the opposite. There are no limitations on who can access our resources.”
Using health assessments and other data, Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi said his agency has determined three areas of need: mental health, obesity and safety.
Library officials and their public health partners have mapped out a strategy to address these issues in the next year — the first step of which was Terrones’ role.
“The library had been looking at ways to support patrons mental health and safety with the navigator position, and the funding from the grant came at just the right time to get the pilot project up and running,” Schmidt said.
Many of Terrones’ clients deal with mental health diagnoses, and struggle to access services because of it. In addition to helping them connect with resources, Terrones also hopes to become a peacekeeper. By building rapport among the clients, he said he could step in when emotions run high.
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The state grant will pay $12,500 of the support service navigator position. Terrones still is employed by Willis Dady Homeless Services in his current capacity at the library, so Schmidt said Willis Dady is funding $15,000 of the position through other grants. The library is funding $17,500.
To help address obesity, officials are considering new healthy cooking or nutrition classes at the library. They are also exploring the possibility of lending out wellness equipment, such as yoga mats or a balance ball, in the same way a patron would check out a book.
The nutrition classes and lending wellness equipment are expected to each cost $5,000, Schmidt said.
Officials are also exploring the possibility of incorporating resources and information on maternal health into the library’s Growing Readers Prenatal Program, designed to help parents develop a reading routine during pregnancy. That is expected to cost $2,500, Schmidt said.
beyond a year
Perry Public Library in Central Iowa also was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Perry — a town of about 7,000 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census — makes up the rural component of the pilot project to Cedar Rapids’ urban counterpart. Officials there have identified food insecurity among the priorities because the at-need populations in Perry have less access to those resources, even with their proximity to the Des Moines metro area, said Abigail Chihak, community health administrator at Dallas County Public Health.
Using a donated refrigerator, the Perry Public Library hopes to partner with local grocery stores to make fresh produce available to residents. It also is considering adding nutrition or healthy cooking classes to the library programming.
Under this grant from the state public health department, Chihak said both Perry and Cedar Rapids public libraries are tasked with creating a road map for future projects across the state.
The funding is guaranteed only for a year, but officials in both communities say it is a priority to ensure new initiatives under the pilot project are sustainable.
“I think it’s important for us to use the services that we already have,” said Linn County Public Health’s Dwivedi. “So why not do it? Why not expand our services to the library so that we can take care of this vulnerable population?”
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