Latino usage soaring at city staple since 1912, with bright plans for future

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Maria Aguilar, Latino outreach coordinator for the Cornelius Library, grew up in town and remembers checking out the same cookbook from the library over and over. Maria Aguilar knows what it means to give back.

Aguilar, who spent most of her childhood in Cornelius taking advantage, when she could, of the offerings at the city’s library, now spends her days helping make those resources available to kids growing up like her.

But Aguilar’s work doesn’t stop at the doors of the library. As full-time Latino outreach coordinator for the tiny library, Aguilar makes regular visits to schoolhouses, Centro Cultural and the Virginia Garcia Wellness Center to make connections with community members young and old.

That work has developed since Aguilar started at the library in 2008. Her position was grant-funded to begin with, but soon the city started budgeting for her position.

“We wanted to reach areas we weren’t getting to and get the word out there and get a face out there the community could connect with,” she said.

Aguilar walked to the library whenever she got the chance as a youngster, dragging her cousins along with her in an attempt to share the opportunities she found. She checked out the same cookbook countless times. Now working at the library, Aguilar loves her job, which triggers fond memories of looking through the stacks.

“It was a safe place. I could just come in here and read and hang out for a couple of hours,” said Aguilar. “It was good for me to come here because it exposed me to so many books and I could explore what I heard about in school.”

Importance of learning

Aguilar’s parents, who worked at a local nursery, always encouraged education and maintaining her fluency in English and Spanish. She learned to read a great variety of works at the library growing up, used it to research high school assignments and took advantage of the services that helped her prepare for college. After she graduated from Portland State University with a degree in marketing and human resources, she found herself back at the childhood staple that helped foster her love for reading, learning, taking advantage of resources and helping others do the same.

“Once I started working here, I really saw all that we had available,” she said. “I saw immediate gratitude for helping someone get the resources they need.”

She sees first-hand the impact the library can have on the lives of regular patrons when people come back to tell her they are now a citizen, they are improving their second language skills, they’ve earned their GED, they’ve gotten into college or they no longer struggle with reading, all because the library was there to give them a leg up, free of cost.

“It’s important to have someone here who understands people’s backgrounds and the sacrifice they make everyday to better themselves,” Aguilar said. “Nobody should be turned away because they don’t know something.”

Cornelius Library Director Karen Hill describes Aguilar as critical to their success. “The position helped bring in people who otherwise might not have come in — people who have never been in the library.”

Half of the library’s staff is bilingual, including Aguilar, so there is almost always someone available to help the Spanish-speaking users, which is important considering the Cornelius library lends out the most Spanish materials in the county — about 14 percent of loaned materials are in Spanish.

Last month the library marked a heady milestone: 100 years in operation (with a couple bumps along the way). And while the library continues to morph to meet the needs of the city of Cornelius, its roots in the city and in reaching out to Latinos are deep.

History of outreach

In 1984, the library became the home of the Hispanic English Language Project, funded by a grant and Washington County Cooperative Library Services, which provided resources like cultural programs, a computer and more than 3,000 Spanish language books.

Latinos, who make up more than half the population of Cornelius, have been strong supporters and consistent users of the library.

In a recent poll conducted by the city, 69 percent of Hispanic participants said they made regular visits to the library, compared to 38 percent of polled Caucasians. Support for a new library was also high across the board, with 71 percent of people polled reporting they would support a 20-year bond for library expansion. Hispanic voters proved to be the group most in favor of the project, however, with 89 percent saying they would approve the bond to start off library construction.

A new library building would make space to expand programs, classes and the selection of resources, as well as create a community meeting space.

Just as the library sparked a lifelong love of learning and continuing education in Aguilar, Cornelius kids still rely on the library, and Aguilar reaches out to start them off on the right foot. Part of that outreach is the summer youth program, which is designed to reward children for reading. The program doubled in enrollment this year, and welcomed 20 percent of Cornelius youth to the program in the summer of 2012.

The program brings in much needed academic support for Cornelius students who, according to a city report, are “especially vulnerable to academic failure,” with more than 80 percent of students coming from low-income families and a high percentage of Latino students. Two out of three Cornelius elementary schools reported reading scores 12 percent lower than the state average and with the exception of one, the city’s elementary schools have no school library staff and no budget for books.

Aguilar, other library staff and the Friends of the Cornelius Library make weekly story times possible as a way to support youth who are in the critical stages of learning to read.

In the last century, members and officials of the small town have continued to show support and appreciation for the library dedicated to improving the lives of those who rely on it. Current library employees and volunteers have picked up where those of the past have left off, carrying on a strong tradition while adapting to the city’s shifting needs.

One-room beginnings

The Cornelius Library has come a long way since its founding in 1912 when a few hundred books sat in borrowed space in the back of a pool hall. Eventually, the Cornelius Women’s Civic Club rented a room inside the city’s fire hall, embarking on the road to establishing a more permanent location.

The group still plays a vital role with their support. The civic club meets the fourth Thursday of every month at the Forest Grove Senior and Community Center, now with about 10 members and always looking for more.

With the help of a tax implemented by the city in 1914, the library became free for all to use, and by 1916, the city raised the tax to one-tenth of a cent to help the expansion.

The library went on to survive war, the Great Depression and a brief closure in the 1980s due to a lack of funding.

Aguilar is just one more dedicated person in the library’s long history that keep it all going.

Margaret Munford, 103, has been a huge supporter of the Cornelius Library since she first moved to the town with her husband in 1946 looking for a “nice, small, quiet place with some elbow-room” after spending three years in the South Pacific. She lived in their house on N. 17th Avenue until four years ago and still remembers the home, the people and the community coming together to create the place where she was “never happier.”

Munford and her husband were so involved in the community and such prodigious supporters of the library, Cornelius City Council proclaimed Jan. 26 to Feb. 1, 1958 “Doc and Margaret Munford Week.” An article about the event written in 1958 quoted Munford with saying, volunteerism “keeps you off the sidelines. It keeps you in the fast track.”

Charles “Doc” Munford, a past Cornelius mayor, also helped Margaret with her work in the schools, specifically Cornelius Elementary. “We involved ourselves in a town we loved,” she said.

Munford wasn’t able to attend the anniversary celebration, but is excited and proud of the milestone anniversary.

Without backing from the city, a strong sense of community and employees like Aguilar, the work of past library supporters like Munford may have dissipated.

“It’s a big achievement,” Aguilar said of the occasion. “Especially with some of the struggles we’ve gone through to keep our doors open. It just shows the great support from the city and the community to be able to stay here. It’s exciting and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

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