Gadsden Public Library brings stories to the park
Photo: Signs placed around Underwood Park opposite Gadsden Public Library display the colorful pages of ‘Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain’ by Verna Aardema. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, Editor-in-Chief
East Gadsden Public Library is introducing a new way to read with Tales in Our Park, a scavenger hunt in which library patrons and park visitors can read a children’s book while walking along the path surrounding Underwood Park.
The park, which sits across from the South College Street location of the Gadsden Public Library, was named in 2021 in honor of Dr. Clarence Underwood, Jr., a Gadsden native, esteemed educator and former athletic director from Michigan State University.
Tales in Our Park was created and is hosted by East Gadsden Public Library Branch Manager LaShunda Williams.
Williams presented the project at the Association of Rural and Small Libraries conference in Chattanooga in September, where she was chosen as one of 30 librarians from a pool of about 180 applicants as “outstanding in their field.” Williams was also the only “Outfielder” chosen in the state of Alabama.
At the time, her program was called Tales in the Park, but Williams said it was important for her to subtly change its title.
“I want the community to feel like this is our park,” Williams said.
Tales in Our Park is currently featuring “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” by Verna Aardema, her pages of vibrant illustrations displayed on billboards throughout the park.
“It’s a book that’s deconstructed and put in order in the park, spaced out on signage, for parents and children or caregivers and anyone to read as they stroll through the park,” Williams explained.
These road sign stories have benefits for children and adults.
“Kids who don’t like to go out or don’t like to read, it’s like you’re sneaking them in,” Williams said. “And it’s a good activity for a family. You enjoy the outdoors and you also read to your child.
Williams noted that this way, local children get both the benefits of reading and the benefits of being outdoors.
“It’s a beautiful park we have across from the library,” Williams said. “I just wanted to extend our library outside. We’re just not inside; we are also outside. We are in the community; we are for you. We want our community to come together.
The library aims to include “take-home” crafts with upcoming stories, which parents can pick up inside the building and use to complete the park pages. Kids can practice following directions and honing their motor skills with these crafts while absorbing the story.
“And also, since reading is foundational, you get some education while you’re at it, fun education for your kids,” Williams added.
Williams plans to release new stories on the panels each season or depending on the holidays. She said Halloween was the next theme.
The Gadsden Public Library offers a variety of community services, including a legal advice clinic on the second Tuesday of each month and a discussion on women’s pigskin led by Timothy Madden, Williams’ colleague at the East branch Gadsden.
Williams sponsored many other projects for the Gadsden Public Library during his 26 years there, including a take-what-you-need program called “Love Box”, which Williams says was the one of his most impactful projects.
“It’s a newspaper box that’s been painted, and we have one downtown (as well as the library),” Williams explained. “We put canned food there; we put sandwiches. We could put fruit – it just depends on what we have. We have socks that we sometimes put in there with blankets.
The boxes provide various foods and resources to people who are homeless or in need.
“I think that’s really one of the best things, personally, for our community because people look down on homelessness,” Williams said. “And they may become that way because they want to get out, or some people may have lost their job, lost their house or whatever. But putting food in the food box feels good to my heart. I like it.”
Williams has been recognized by the Association of Rural and Small Libraries for her leadership in the library.
“I didn’t know a lot of people had asked for it; I was so grateful,” she said. “It gave me more leadership skills. I learned a lot and made new friends in different other states, so it’s really great.