Sara Garcia is library mom with a superpower
At 1 p.m. on the dot, youngsters began streaming out of the basement door of the Shelter Island Library, heading back to school after lunch break, while inside Sara Garcia, head of Youth Services, was putting things to rights ahead of the next group due in after school.
When it comes to kids and the library, she runs the show, so when she told me we could talk if I came at exactly 1, I knew she meant it.
“I’m covered in Legos,” she said by way of a greeting. Our interview took place while she dug out.
Garcia self-identifies as “a nerd,” but she does claim a superpower; the ability to discover and celebrate the individuality of every child who walks into the library. “Every single person has that very special thing that makes them unique,” she said. “If you go through life and you don’t find traits in people that are inspiring and interesting, then you’re not looking hard enough.”
In the ground-floor children’s library, Sara supervises a daily round of lunch-time and after school activities and programs, designed to stimulate the interest and participation of each child. Sometimes kids do their homework, but more often she leads activities that involve exploration, community-building and fun. “I’m here to give them a positive environment,” she said. “Somewhere to go where they feel a sense of belonging.”
When she came to work at the Library in 2020, she was not one of those people who had to ask “Where is it?” Sara grew up as an only child in Quogue, and when her father had a roofing or siding job on Shelter Island, he brought the family along. “We’d grab lunch and drive around,” she remembered. “Once I had a friend from Brooklyn come out and Shelter Island was one of the first places we took her. She called it, ‘The place with all the deer.’”
She recalled a rough transition from elementary school, going from a class with the same 12 kids since kindergarten, to a much larger middle school. “I was super-smart, a socially awkward kid. It was hard. I decided I didn’t want to go to college, I wanted to write.” Her dad, who said he wished he’d gone to college himself, told her if she would get her associates degree, he’d pay for it. “So, I did. And then he said, ‘Why don’t you get your bachelors?’ And I said, ‘If you insist.’”
She got her degree in English from Stony Brook University.
After working for a library in Westhampton, Sara moved to Florida for four years, working as a reference librarian in Brevard County, while getting a master’s degree in education from Kent State online. The Florida library’s location near a school meant that a sizable portion of her clientele was teens and tweens, and she took to being their “library mom.”
Learning to work with teenagers was just one of the new experiences she had in Florida. “In Brevard County, librarians are civil servants, expected to work when the government needs help.” That’s how, with four hours of hurricane training, Sara had to pack up all of her own animals, take them to the local shelter, and work a 12-hour shift during Hurricane Dorian in 2019. “The people coming to shelter were not getting the care they needed in the first place,” she said. “We had to pack them into a gym and it created problems. We didn’t have blankets or cots.”
With the prospect of more hurricane duty at least once a year, she began looking for work back home.
When Sara realized the person interviewing her for the job at the Shelter Island Library was Terry Lucas, the former owner of Open Book, she realized it was there that she purchased “InkHeart,” by Cornelia Funke when she was in middle school. It was a book that changed her life, and she told Ms. Lucas so.
“That book made me want to write, and now writing is my passion,” Sara said. “Terry took a chance on me, and I love it here.”
She started work in the middle of the pandemic, at the time when the library was just starting to allow patrons back inside the building, and no schoolkids were coming in. “I was sitting here and asking, are there really kids on Shelter Island? That summer we had a couple of regular kids come when they didn’t have anything else to do, and when they started hanging out with their normal group in the fall, they all started coming to the library. It was word of mouth.”
Although she never imagined she would find her way to a job working with kids under 18, Sara couldn’t be happier. “You sometimes don’t see yourself doing what you end up doing and you fall in love with it,” she said. “My tweens have gone from 5th grade to 7th and are becoming incredible people.”
She’s always on the lookout for the kind of activities that make the library a safe place, as well as a fun place. A popular activity is the Tiny Food Party. “I create tiny food, bring it in and we all get together and eat it.”
They’ve eaten pancakes the size of a quarter, tiny plates of spaghetti with a dollop of sauce and tiny ice cream sundaes. Sara cultivates community for kids during the lunch and after school hours. “The library is an even ground,” she said. “Kids who may not be friends within school, they get to hang out at the library.”
Her resources, she said, “Are dumb luck and the internet.” She searches for crafts for kids, and follows a librarian in Canada who has done some innovative programs. She also involves the kids, asking them what they want to do. “We’ve made weird volcano pumpkins, and work with telescopes,” she said. “We do NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — except we do it all throughout the year.”
“I think it’s important for me to let parents know that someone sees their kids as they see them, sees how brilliant, how funny they are” Sara added. “I want them to know that their kids are safe and that they will always be looked after, and that I love them.”
Judging by the way the kids say good-bye and yell hello, they know it.
Lightning Round — Sara Garcia
What do you always have with you?
I always have fountain pens. I won’t say how many I have because it is a problem. We try to keep it at six in current rotation.
Favorite place on Shelter Island?
You mean besides the library? My desk here is my cozy place.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island?
Fond memories of walking through Southampton Town with my parents.
When was the last time you were elated?
After my cat passed away at age 20, my friend invited me to dinner. My friend’s group had purchased a plaque with my cat’s birth and death dates and a care package. I cried happy and sad tears.
Favorite movie or book?
‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ is my favorite movie because it has women making hard core decisions, being super-cool. My favorite book — ‘Retribution Falls’ by Chris Gooding. I have a tattoo of that one.
Lasagna. My mom makes the best.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?
I have a friend who is on his way to becoming a doctor, another becoming a veterinarian, a friend who has gone through his mom having cancer, and losing his father, all in the last five years, and one who is an amazing librarian and inspires me every day.