For many of New Brunswick’s youths, the beige building adorned with four Greek-styled columns in the heart of the city is a gateway for infinite possibilities.
There, they can explore the sublime reddish precipices of the Grand Canyon, delve into Roald Dahl’s literary world or fine-tune their gardening skills. To the delight of their parents, they can also focus on their homework and let out all of the curiosity, energy or stress that they may have at home or in school.
Although the place is officially named the New Brunswick Free Public Library, city resident Micaela Flores calls it her daughters’ second home.
“I definitely prefer that my little girls come here rather than being on the street or going to the park alone,” Flores said. “They are safe here, and they love coming here.”
The Mexico native said she tries to brings her three daughters to the library every weekend. Her youngest child is currently in pre-kindergarten, the middle one is in kindergarten and the oldest just entered middle school.
Despite their age differences, Flores said they all share a bond with the library and don’t mind the walk there from home. The three girls frequently ask her to take them on Sundays as well, but Flores said she is unable to because of commitments.
“They all love the programs hosted here and whenever they see something that they like, I sign them up,” she said.
Many of the activities that target the city’s youth are organized by Chelsea Woods-Turner, one of the librarians. She is in charge of running the library’s readers club for fourth to eighth graders and hosts a bi-weekly program called "Relax!" in which she helps young students — from kindergarteners to middle schoolers — cope with stress and perform better in school.
The conditions of urban areas like New Brunswick tend to produce more anxiety for children than suburban or rural communities, Woods-Turner said. Reading, playing and learning in a setting where no activity is graded serves an antidote to this stress.
“We have the advantage of being an informal, no-pressure learning environment,” she said.
This past week, Woods-Turner invited her sister, a former National Park Service employee, to the library to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the federal agency that manages all of the national parks and monuments in the country.
Aubree Woods spent a year in the Grand Canyon conducting field research on the Sentry Milk-Vetch, a rare and minuscule plant that became endangered as its populations were trampled on by tourists traveling throughout the national park.
She told the attentive audience that her job was to make sure that these small plants continued to grow across the rims of the canyon.
With photos, a short talk and a scavenger hunt, the sisters took the young city residents on an expedition across lands that most of them do not have the chance to experience.
“We want them to have exposure to things in their country that they might not know exist. We want them to know that these parks are accessible to them,” Woods-Turner said.
One of the library’s missions is to ensure that the city’s residents are aware that all of its services are free of charge, she said. The seemingly trivial letters that overlook the building’s entrance serve as a reminder to the community that it is in fact a “free public library.”
“Really, the only time you have to give money to the library is if you return a book late,” she said.
Woods-Turner identified her co-workers and herself as “public servants” who have a responsibility to the area’s community because the library is a tax funded institution.
Many of the families in New Brunswick rely on the library’s free services because of their financial circumstances.
About 34.9 percent of the city’s population is in poverty, while the median household income stands at $38,399, according to statistics from the United States Census Bureau. In the entire state of New Jersey, the median household income is $72,062, and about 11.1 percent of its residents are in poverty.
Aside from appreciating the fact that everything is free, New Brunswick resident Rosalba Reyes cherishes the library’s accommodations for immigrants like herself whose native language is not English.
The native of Puebla, Mexico, who has been coming to the library for the past four years with her three sons, praised the “welcoming” environment she has encountered in every visit.
Aware of the community’s large immigrant population, the library has made concerted efforts to make the institution more inclusive. Nearly all flyers and materials are available in both English and Spanish, and many of the events — especially those for children — are held in bilingual formats.
“We want people who may not speak or read English to know that they are welcomed here,” Woods-Turner said. “We also try to think about how a bilingual kid would approach learning.”
The librarian said her selection of "Becoming Naomi León" as the new book for the readers club had an underlying purpose. She is certain that the coming-of-age novel about a Mexican-American girl will resonate with the kids in the city and their own experiences, she said.
Although somewhat tiring, Reyes said the 20-minute walk from home to the library with her boys is “worth it.”
“At home they have a lot free time and they only think about watching television or playing video games,” she said. “Here they have the opportunity to learn.”
Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.