Editorial: Riverhead Library offers route to a better life

Riverhead Free Library has made history on Long Island.

It has launched a program its backers appropriately call RiverHope, which allows people who are part of the Maureen’s Haven homeless outreach program to receive library cards. This is important because it offers people without a fixed address access to all that the library has to offer — the ability to check out and read books, use of the library’s computers for email and job searches, but also access to a wide range of library programs, including an online educational forum called Universal Class. That program alone opens the door to classes in 32 subjects, as well as professional and certification courses.

That could be a game changer for many people who have fallen on very hard times and are searching for a route back to a better life. It’s a model other North Fork libraries would be wise to follow.

Those of us who have cards to our local libraries know that having access to everything a library has to offer is a great gift. Living in a community with a first-class library run by welcoming, helpful people makes that community far stronger than it would otherwise be.

RiverHope is the first program of its kind in Nassau or Suffolk counties. What RiverHope tells men and women affiliated with Maureen’s Haven is simple and direct: “You are welcome in our library. Please come in, use what we have wisely, and we will help you get back on track.” As Maryann Gensler, executive director of Maureen’s Haven, said: “Gestures like this are so important in people’s lives, even if it only helps one person.”

In other words, a journey of a million miles begins with just one step. RiverHope can be that first step.

“It’s the fact that you are affirmed,” Gensler says of the program’s potential impact on homeless men and women, “and the fact that somebody looks at you and takes you seriously.”

The new cards are called EZ Learning Pass, a variation on the name of the ubiquitous electronics that allow cars to pass through toll booths without stopping to pay an attendant. As of last week, cards had been distributed to 17 people affiliated with Maureen’s Haven, whose outreach center on Lincoln Street finds shelter for the homeless and provides nutritious meals. That’s 17 people who can now walk into Riverhead Free Library like everyone else and find a book to read or go online. This is the equivalent of hanging a “You are all welcome” sign on the front of the library building.

Liz Stokes, the library’s circulation director, started the program in January. She has also implemented food drives at the library, worked to steer young people away from gangs and crime, and helped recently released prisoners find jobs. Ms. Stokes also helped create Riverhead Town’s veterans advisory committee.

Libraries were founded on the great, liberal notion that they could change lives. Book-lined libraries in rural small towns offered access to a wider world otherwise unreachable to residents. A library was a place of self-improvement, where people who had no books at home could find one to read that opened their world and their imaginations. A free, public library is a great gift.

One new holder of an EZ Learning Pass has already seen the potential for his life to change. “One man told me he lost his business, lost his home,” Ms. Stokes said. “He felt like he was just part of the system. This was the first public place that made him feel welcome. He could use the computer, start looking for employment, take out books having to do with those careers, and get back on his feet.”