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State awards LIC library $950,000 to hire worker for advocacy program

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The Jeanne Elmezzi Adult Learning Center in the Long Island City Library is already a place where immigrants and people from low-income households go to boost their reading skills, but after an infusion of nearly $1 million, it is offering more.

The three-year, $950,000 grant from the state Department of Education allows the branch to operate as a Literacy Zone Welcome Center, where a case worker can help individuals get access to city services and even find other organizations to help them with health care, housing problems, social services and tax issues. The new program has been in effect for the past three months.

“It’s an everyday occurrence where you would have someone walk in and they’re looking for information,” said Michele Echols, the library’s case manager, noting recent queries have included how to apply for food stamps, subsidized housing and how to apply for unemployment via the Internet.

While the literacy center and its two satellite branches in the Queensbridge and Ravenswood public housing projects help many low-income Americans living there, Echols said a large number of the women the staff works with now are from Bangladesh and Central America.

“In their country they didn’t have to work, but living in New York City is requiring everyone in the household to work and a lot of the women are not English-proficient enough for our Workforce centers,” she said, noting the staff has set up baby-sitter training courses for the women through the American Red Cross.

“Originally this training was designed for teenagers, but ... the literacy levels [were] why I decided to utilize it.”

Susan Dalmas, director of adult literacy programs throughout the Queens Library system, said the process of actively referring these library users to outside organizations for further help was a natural progression.

“They feel comfortable coming to our classes,” she said, noting some of the women immigrants must sneak out of their houses to attend in order to avoid angering their husbands. “Before we know it they’re telling us all of their problems.”

For now, the library has no plans to expand the Welcome Center program to its other branches, but spokeswoman Joanne King said the lessons learned may be applied elsewhere.

“It may be possible to retrain staff to give more in-depth referrals when we can, but we’ll have to see how it goes,” she said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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