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Highwood library in the running for national medal of excellence and service



MAR 31, 2021 AT 11:20 AM

Some patrons of the Highwood Public Library refer to it as tiny but mighty.

That’s because if not specifically looking for the building, it might be missed on Highwood Avenue.

With approximately 2,000 library cardholders to speak of, the library’s presence in the community is growing.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services announced its finalists for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service in March. The award is the nation’s highest honor given to those agencies that demonstrate excellence, according to institute officials.

The Highwood Public Library is the only library in Illinois to have been selected.

It was U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Deerfield, who nominated the Highwood library for its current successes, which began two years ago when Carmen Patlan became executive director. Under Patlan’s directorship, Schneider said the library has been reshaped.

“New leadership is transforming the library to be a vital community hub for constituents, especially focused on a large immigrant population in Highwood,” Schneider said. “They have begun offering more Spanish-language programming, proactively reaching out, bringing people into the library at unprecedented levels.”

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, nearly half of the city’s 5,224 residents identify as Hispanic.

Patlan said when she first took the executive director position, she noticed that demographic of the community wasn’t utilizing the library and realized that what it offered wasn’t meeting their needs.

By engaging with those residents, Patlan and her team — a volunteer group trained to listen to patrons and promote the library— asked key questions, such as what they considered to be barriers to a better life, she said.

“So many people told us they had no barriers, but when we asked whether they knew English, had a driver’s license or could move to higher positions in their jobs, they said no,” Patlans said. “We told them, ‘Those are barriers.’”

The team then set to create responsive programming, such as Spanish GED, citizenship and conversational ESL (English as a second language) classes.

Patlan said the large Spanish-speaking community in Highwood and the surrounding Highland Park area started to take advantage of all those programs available.

Fluent in Spanish and English herself, Patlan hired bilingual staff who could also communicate in Russian and Filipino.

Under an umbrella program that began first by asking the community what it needed, and then creating programming around those needs, the Highwood library has implemented a host of services that are helping patrons of all cultures grow as parents, students, community leaders and citizens.

The Bridging Resources to Educational Access and Knowledge program takes the approach of addressing barriers in the community by connecting the dots for families through all its programs.

All of the library’s initiatives fall under that BREAK program, and it’s why the IMLS chose Highwood, according to Patlan, who submitted the extensive application describing the program when the library was nominated.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, that effort to meet the community’s needs is taking the form of weekly food distribution events that are attended on average by more than 200 families, Patlan said.

COVID-19-related events started immediately after the pandemic hit last year, aimed at educating families, as well as providing needed services. The services include a two-day COVID-19 vaccination event held recently, where the library partnered with Walgreens to administer 400 vaccines to people who pre-registered.

COVID-19 testing events have also been hosted at the libraryin partnership with the Lake County Health Department.

“Under BREAK, the Highwood Public Library has played a life-changing role in the community, creating programs that have already shown significant results,” Patlan said.

The numbers reveal that success.

At the end of 2019, the library saw a 400% increase in programming and a 21% increase in library usage, according to library officials.

Adult and children program attendance increased by 86%. And as a result of new technology skill-building efforts by the bilingual staff through classes and one-to-one support, computer usage also saw a growth of 47%, Patlan said.

But the real impact of the work is best displayed through the people who use the library.

Patlan has no shortage of stories to tell. She collects them daily from interactions with those who are achieving milestones and reaching personal goals with the help of the library’s resources and staff, she said.

Carolina Ibarra Casarubias, of Highland Park, started out as a patron, who then became a volunteer and is now in charge of running a Spanish-language program at the library called “Abriendo Puertas,” which translates to “Opening Doors.”

The established curriculum program offered through the library currently has 12 parents of children up to age 5, learning how to prepare their future students for school success by being their first teacher.

Ibarra Casarubias said she understands well how opportunities at the library can offer a change in the course of lives. In 2019 she began taking a citizenship class at the library.

It wasn’t easy, she said, but she had a desire to better herself and she stuck with them for nine months.

The results of that effort paid off when she became a citizen and then voted for the first time in the 2020 presidential election.

“This library is the heart of Highwood,” Ibarra Casarubias said. “That I could be represented with my vote was transformative for me. It really showed me I can do anything.”

For single mom of three Lina Gomez, of Highwood, the library is the safe space where her children are finding themselves.

“They love to read and they love being at the library,” Gomez said.

Her oldest daughter enjoys biographies and her youngest son is now picking out books for her that she can read in Spanish, so she can also be part of that community of learners who congregate in the library’s spaces, she said.

News of the library making the IMLS’s finalist list for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service couldn’t have come at a better time, said Lucy Hospodarsky, president of the Highwood library Board of Trustees.

The library is in the middle of a capital campaign to renovate its outdated building.

Hospodarsky said when Patlan hit the ground running two years ago, the library saw a surge in programs and attendance, and the modernized space will allow for the space to reflect the resources.


“Carmen has done a great job at finding leaders who are spreading the word that the library is there to serve everyone in Highwood and Highland Park,” Hospodarsky said. “Her strength is developing partnerships with community organizations to help bring in programming and raising money for those programs.”

The library was awarded a $671,000 matching construction grant by the state of Illinois.

The Friends of Highwood Public Library, the group overseeing the renovation project, now has to raise the needed $1.3 million before June.

The plan to turn the outdated library building into a 21st century one with a community center includes the addition of collaborative work areas that support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning experiences, has interactive learning exhibits for early learners and modernizes its meeting room, along with enhancing the environment with updated lighting, new carpeting and book displays.

Hospodarsky said what is most exciting about the project is the community center component, which is important because the city doesn’t have a space like that.

“We think that the library can be that focal point where people can come together,” Hospodarsky said.

Patlan’s vision is just that —a place where all are welcome.

As an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, brought to the U.S. at age 8 with an undocumented status, Patlan said she’s never forgotten the people who extended a hand to her father as he worked to provide a better life for his children than the one they had in Mexico.


“I can draw from that experience and understand how people who are willing to fight for a better opportunity for their kids can feel like they’re in survival mode and can’t see past that to thrive. But I can help them thrive,” Patlan said. “That’s what motivates me to pay it forward.”

Patlan is clear that while her passion is ensuring the large immigrant community in Highwood takes advantage of all their library has to offer, the library should also remain the loyal resource space that longtime patrons have come to depend on.

The recognition from the IMLS is assurance the agency is on the right track, she said.

“It confirms we can be relevant to anyone who walks through our doors and that we can create a community that’s engaged,” Patlan said. “It’s validation of the sweat, tears and passion behind everything we do here.”

The IMLS National Medal winners are scheduled to be announced in May.

This story appeared here in the Chicago Tribune on 3/31/2021.

The story was reported on and written by Yadira Sanchez Olson who is a freelancer.


Highwood Public Library Receives Large Construction Grant

HIGHWOOD, IL​ – The Highwood Public Library (HPL) has received more than $670,000 in funds from the Public Library Construction Act Grant Program through the Office of the Secretary of State and the Illinois State Library, executive director Carmen Patlan announced today. This grant award kicks off a $1.3 million capital campaign to raise much needed funds to renovate the small library space into a thriving, sustainable community center.

“It is time for this library to grow not only physically, but also to meet the educational, personal, and professional needs of our diverse community,” Patlan said. “If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us that Highwood needs a community center that has all the resources its families need and trust in one location.”

Library Board of Trustees President Lucy Hospodarsky said, “We opened our doors in 1970 and have had only one renovation since then. Our main library space is out of date and delivering 21st century services is very difficult. The Board is excited to begin this capital campaign and realize the vision of a modern library space to benefit the community.”

The project will remodel the existing facility to provide flexible, collaborative learning spaces for all age groups, engaging and interactive museum-like exhibits, and improved accessibility throughout the building. New meeting and study rooms, and experiential learning areas including a theater and stage area, recording booth, and a makerspace will all be added to support the library’s literacy initiatives and increase community access.

HPL plays a critical and important role in the educational, cultural, and inspirational needs of local families in Highwood. The city’s population is 5,400, and 60 percent identify as Latino.

“Last year, we were seeing a record number of visitors and launching new, culturally sensitive programs that were reaching the whole community,” said Patlan. “However, the pandemic forced us to put some of that on hold to focus on more immediate needs that would help ensure the health and safety of the families who live here. Now we are continuing our work to address the needs of our community brought on by COVID-19 as well as building toward the future.”

Throughout the pandemic, the Highwood Public Library has remained responsive to its community’s needs. The library continues to provide online resources and virtual programming on a weekly basis, including Spanish GED, ESL classes, English computer classes for adult learners, and homework help for local students. The library also acts as a food distribution site, providing meal kits to an average of 210 families per week in partnership with Curt’s Cafe and the Roberti House. To further serve the needs of the community, Patlan secured funding and developed partnerships ​to educate the community on the importance of being counted in the 2020 Census and is​ ​helping develop strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Latino communities throughout Lake county.

“The library and its leadership have continuously been able to see a need in the community and fulfill that need,” said Highwood Mayor Charlie Pecaro. “With Carmen's vision the library quickly transitioned to a community center providing much needed education and social service needs, then the library successfully headed up the city's census campaign and most recently became the community's resource for needs created by COVID. With Carmen in the lead there is nothing our library can't accomplish.”


Learn more about the capital campaign and how you can support HPL at or call (847) 432-5404.

Founded in 1976, the Highwood Public Library is an innovative and collaborative anchor of the community, providing educational support, information needs, engaging services, and inspirational collections. The Highwood Public Library provides free multicultural and bilingual programs, services, and resources for Highwood and Illinois residents of all ages and ethnicities. The Library is located at 102 Highwood Avenue in Highwood, IL and is currently open Mondays-Thursdays from 12pm-7pm, Fridays from 12pm-6pm, and Saturdays from 10am-5pm. The library is closed on Sundays. For more information about the Highwood Public Library, visit w​​ and ​Facebook​.

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