Meet Nora, Early Childhood Community Engagement Coordinator

From a very young age, Nora Sanchez knew she wanted to work with children.

Before going to college, she worked in a daycare center, assisting teachers who became role models to her. “Because it wasn’t just a job to them,” Nora says. “It was who they were.”

Years later, after having two children of her own and spending a lot of time with them in the library, Nora says she began to think about what it would be like to work for the library. Her kids were growing up and didn’t need their mom with them in the library as much—and she missed spending time there.

‘I was able to understand the value of the work’

“As a parent, I was able to understand the value of the work being done by the librarians. I remember being so grateful,” she says. “It’s vivid in my mind how the library fits into the lives of people who work with children. As a parent, caregiver, or educator, the library is pivotal to your life.”

“And now I wanted to be the person on the other side,” she adds.

In 2017, Nora started working as a Library Assistant at the Main Library. And in February 2020, she was promoted to Early Childhood Community Engagement Coordinator, becoming the library’s second point person to reach out to preschools, home daycares, daycare centers, and nonprofits.

“To be able to support caregivers and educators … I pinch myself often, that I get to do this work,” she says. “It’s an honor. I got my dream job.”

‘I got my dream job’—and then the world changed

Nora joined colleague Jenny Jackson in the work of developing relationships with educators and caregivers, listening to their needs and delivering hand-selected resources to support their curriculum, as well as social and emotional issues like anxiety, death, and grief.

She was excited about helping to expand the library’s outreach to preschool and home daycares, including making regular visits to bring lively storytimes. And then the pandemic hit.

As in-person visits screeched to a halt, the two jumped into Zoom, first doing virtual storytime visits with home daycares and schools that they had established relationships with, and later with any Oak Park daycare or preschool that was meeting over Zoom, as well as centers that were caring for children of essential workers.

Nora in a recent Virtual Learning for Kids & Families video

In this way, they continued to provide opportunities for early literacy, social and emotional growth, and personal connection through stories, songs, puppets, and yoga—plus show-and-tell with special treasures from home.

“I’m very grateful for that time,” Nora says. “It was a challenging time emotionally, but when you’re spending time with kids, you want to be present for them. It was healing for me to be present with them during that time.”

Throughout 2020, Jenny and Nora worked in new ways to support educators, children, and caregivers, including by partnering with the Equity Team of Oak Park (E-Team) and the Collaboration for Early Childhood on Ready, Set, Kindergarten! This program provided free online classes and support for Oak Park and River Forest families with incoming kindergartners, helping to prepare them for remote learning in the fall.

‘Right now, educators are feeling a lot of pressure’

In the fall, they were able to resume the School and Daycare Resource Delivery service for Oak Park educators and childcare providers.

“We touch base with educators, they let us know their curriculum, their themes, and how we can support them,” Nora says. “For example, if they’re learning about Women’s History Month or St. Patrick’s Day, I make a list of about 15 books I can pull. I drop them off, and I pick up anything they have to return. It’s pretty fantastic.”

Other resources include:

  • Social-Emotional Learning Kits, with books, open-ended questions, and materials designed to empower children to share their ideas and feelings with grown-ups and peers.
  • Educator Resource Kits, with items designed to engage and empower children with a love for learning, generously provided by the Collaboration for Early Childhood.

“Right now, educators are feeling a lot of pressure,” Nora says. “They have a lot on their plates, so any way we can support the work that they’re doing, we are happy to.”

‘We know we can rely on Nora’

“Nora is deeply immersed in the children’s education and development, and she is always happy to help. We know we can rely on Nora because she genuinely cares about the education of ‘our’ children.”

—Alma Martinez, director of Quetzali Child Care

Alma Martinez, director of Quetzali Child Care in Oak Park, is one home daycare provider that the library’s Early Childhood Community Engagement team works with. She says that, according to research, when community programs are engaged in children’s learning, it strengthens overall outcomes for school readiness.

And in working with Nora and Jenny, she says she feels genuinely supported and heard.

“Nora has provided the children with so much engagement, from book deliveries to virtual storytime, that they adore and need,” Martinez says. “I believe that so much learning has evolved within the context of these interactions and relationships.”

‘It takes a community’

In 2019, Nora was the first recipient of the new Butler Youth Services Scholarship for Underrepresented Groups in the Field of Library Science at Dominican University, an award given to a student seeking to earn a Master of Library and Information Science degree with a focus on children’s services for public or school libraries.

And just like those daycare teachers she admired when she was young, Nora seems to have found her own calling. Not just a job, but a life’s work.

“I love children,” she says. “They’re wonderful beings, and I’m aware those first few years are really important for brain development. And it takes a community. So, to know we are in a position as library staff to support caregivers and parents, knowing I can have a positive impact on a kid’s life—because I know the immense amount of pressure and the work it takes—I want to be a part of that.”