In March 2016, Robert Simmons joined the library as its first social worker, a direct result of the library’s intentional strategy of listening and responding to community aspirations. Since then, the Social Services and Safety team he’s built has served more than 350 vulnerable patrons. Most are Oak Park residents experiencing mental illness, homelessness, and extreme poverty.
“When I started, I was shocked at how many socially isolated people were here, particularly at the Main Library, who needed some type of social services advocacy,” Simmons said.
Listening and responding
The team, which includes Social Services Specialist Stephen Jackson and three Safety and Security Monitors, doesn’t offer direct service to patrons—they don’t provide therapy, for example. Instead, they talk with people to identify their needs and refer them to appropriate resources, including those related to housing, employment, health, immigration, and domestic violence.
“Someone may request assistance with one thing, but then we find out that they can use help in other areas too,” Simmons said.
Through relationships with approximately 45 Chicagoland organizations, plus extensive experience working in Oak Park, the team can connect people with services for “the entire life spectrum, from babies to seniors,” Simmons said.
Connecting people with jobs
Brian Lycko, who said he visits the library frequently because it’s peaceful, was connected with a job after team member Stephen Jackson introduced himself and learned Lycko was looking for work. Jackson contacted a community developer he knows who hires people with barriers to employment, and the developer came to the library to meet with Lycko.
“I told him my qualifications and what I could do, and he hired me. I’ve been working for him for about two months now,” Lycko said in July.
Expanding what we do to meet community aspirations
Noting that libraries traditionally have not employed social workers—although the practice is becoming more common nationally—the library exists to provide services, resources, and information in response to community needs and aspirations, said Deputy Director Jim Madigan.
“The state of Illinois has abdicated its responsibility to provide mental health services and support for other social services, and therefore local governments are having to step up,” Madigan said. “We’ve expanded what we do to meet our community’s needs and aspirations.”
Resources in the community
Community Resources for Your Family in Oak Park (pdf). Find resources in family support, mental health, employment, food pantry services, and more in this document from the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition.
Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township. Search this behavioral/mental health service finder.
Housing Forward. Find shelter schedules and eligibility criteria.
Support4U. Oak Park and River Forest high school and middle school students who need confidential support on any mental health issue can now text with licensed mental health clinicians 24/7. This new service is sponsored by Oak Park and River Forest townships, the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club. Watch a video to learn more »
- District 200 students: Text “HELP” to 844.670.5838
- District 97 students: Text “HOPE” to 844.670.5838
- District 90 students: Text “SAFE” to 844.670.5838