“We all have to work as a team:”

Supporting healthy living at Rutherford County Library

A simple strategy to get started: Pool your resources

Engle Troxler works for the Rutherford County Library, located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The poverty rate in the county is around 20% and it is classified as among the most economically distressed in the state of North Carolina. Asked how her library supports HEAL, E. Engle stated, “We all just have to work as a team. There’s too few of us at the library for us to be able to have separate responsibilities.”

Library director April Young illustrated how the practice of pooling your resources works when she told us that “our IT librarian was doing some research on the internet and saw hydroponic gardening at a library in Georgia. He brought that to me, and he said, ‘I think that we can do some hydroponic gardening.’”

Young then reflected on how something like hydroponic gardening could fit into both what the library was already doing and what the community was doing.

Read on to learn how the library pooled its resources to support a variety of programs focused on fitness, food, gardening, all for a variety of age groups and audiences. 

This case study is part of  HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living) at the Library, funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services (# RE-246336-OLS-20)

  • Location: Spindale, Rutherford County, NC
  • Population: 64,963
  • Service Area: 68,845
  • Demographics: 87% White, 10% African American, 6% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 10
  • Operating Revenue: $683,481
  • Annual Library Visits: 51,920
  • Annual Programs: 635
  • Annual Program Audience: 6,441

Pool your resources to start growing food at the library

The idea of growing food at the Rutherford County library emerged from the creative combination of the interests and backgrounds of a number of different library staff members:

  • A bilingual (English/Spanish) librarian collaborated with a Spanish speaking colleague to do a Latin Cooking series to introduce cooking from another culture with healthy fresh ingredients
  • The IT librarian had been working on starting a library makerspace, and thinking about creative ways that the library could support making things
  • The Marketing and Programming Coordinator had used her deep knowledge of the community to connect with the head of a local health foundation, who had started providing the library with funding and other resources to support health
  • The library director had been thinking about the walking path behind the library as a space for a garden.

The different staff of the library pooled their resources, ideas, and contacts to come up with the idea, and the library director then went to physically adjacent offices of the NC State Cooperative Extension offices to see if they had interest in working with the library around hydroponic gardening. As Young put it “it snowballed from there.”

With funding from the health foundation, and with expert insights provided by the Extension, the library secured three hydroponic towers that were then used at multiple library branches, as well as by community partners, to grow food.

By pooling their resources, both internally in the library, and externally with community partners, the Rutherford County Library was able to do things no particular individual could do on their own, like start hydroponic gardens and public programming related to them!

Take risks and think outside the box

According to Hannah Bundy, the Horticulture agent for the Rutherford County Extension, the partnership with the library works well because the library is willing to take risks, and think outside of the box about things like getting the library dirty during gardening programs. Learn more in the side-bar!

The relationship with the Extension has become so central that April Young has been invited to join the Advisory Board of the local Extension office. April said that is huge because she felt like during her first few years working on health promotion at the library there was a lot of her and other staff going out and reaching out and suggesting things to partners, but she said that has started to shift and now the extension comes to the library with ideas, and the hospital reaches out with virtual program ideas, and other libraries in the area reach out to suggest partnerships.

How can you use this story to get started with HEAL at your library?

Start by talking with your colleagues about their interests. Try to find both common interests and intersections of diverse interests, and then use those commonalities to build momentum. Pool your connections to draw upon existing community resources, including both expertise and financial support. As you build momentum, eventually a turning point will come, and others will begin to initiate partnerships with you.

“Doing gardening classes in that type of environment [the library], we’ve definitely had to brainstorm to make sure we’re not making a mess, but also making it where people aren’t restricted with what we’re trying to do. And we know that kids like to play with dirt. [Kenneth] has been really great about not making it so stringent. He is creative about it, and he has fun, which has made it an enjoyable thing on my end as well. Whereas other partners that I’ve worked with, I feel like I’ve come into their space, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wait, you have dirt!!’ I’ve never really felt that from the library,” Hannah Bundy – Extension Agent, Agriculture, Rutherford County

Everyone plays a role to get the work done

Another illustration of how the library pools its resources is by utilizing all the skills and interests of library staff. April and IT librarian Kenneth Odom had at one point talked about trying to start a circulating bicycle collection at the library.

At the time, there was no bike store in Rutherford County. A recent initiative designed to make the county more supportive of bicycling and walking placed the new Thermal Belt Rail Trail in close proximity to the library. Those two facts made the idea of a library bikeshare seem attractive.

To build some momentum around the idea of the library starting a bikeshare, April and Kenneth went to a meeting of the Rutherford Outdoor Coalition, the organization behind the Rail Trail, to see if they had any interest in the idea. April had heard from another community connection that the coalition had recently received a grant to fund a bicycle program, a fact that illustrates this library’s deep knowledge of the local happenings in the community. Ultimately the library abandoned the bikeshare idea due to concerns about maintenance and up-keep, but the connection to the Coalition endures. As April said, “we’ve just kind of stuck with them [the Coalition].”

The library now regularly participates in Coalition meetings, and has made many connections through that body that have helped them navigate ways to effectively support community health. That work has led to the creation of a StoryWalk at a local park, in partnership with a municipal library located in the county.

It’s impossible for one person to be everywhere in a community. To enable public library representation in community coalitions requires delegation and sharing the load. By working together, the staff of the Rutherford County Library System found a way to meaningfully participate in the Rutherford Outdoor Coalition. That engagement, in turn, led to new opportunities for the library to collaborate with others to serve the community.

Transforming perceptions, transforming communities

Staff are supported when looking outside the library for community partners. It isn’t just the library director who goes out and networks with partners. Everyone is encouraged and empowered to be seeking partners and opportunities in the community.

This support has created a culture in which staff are excited to advocate for the library. Maria Davis currently leads the Mountains Branch Library of Rutherford County Library. Before working at the library, Maria thought libraries were dying and never visited them. Working at the library, her perceptions changed. She saw that libraries can open opportunities, particularly for people like herself who grew up in poverty. Maria now speaks about the power of the library regularly to the Kiwanis, Lions, etc. Staff becoming engaged with community groups has led to outside organizations seeking the library as a partner, however Maria knows that many in her community are still like she used to be: They do not recognize all that libraries can do.

Maria was the person who opened the door to a local health foundation, RHI. Maria Davis approached the foundation to ask for a donated scale to help with a Weight Watchers program run by Kenneth Odom. Here’s how Maria described her first attempt to get funding for this initiative: “So I just called [my contact from the foundation] and asked straight up, ‘Hey, will y’all buy us the scale?’ I told her what we were doing, and she’s like ‘Sure’ when do you want it?’” Learn more in the side-bar!

Over the years, Maria has applied to the foundation for funding to help the library get everything from Spanish-language books to exercise equipment and gym classes. Maria said, “I think one of the reasons April hired me is because I I told her flat out in the interview ‘I’m not scared to ask anybody for anything.’ All they can do is say no, and if they say no that means no, not today. It doesn’t mean no tomorrow. So, I really think that’s 90% of the reason I got hired” to work at the library.

By recognizing how Maria could help the library, April also transformed a library skeptic into a library advocate, unleashing broad ripple effects that continue to transform how the library engages the community around health.

With funding from the RHI Legacy Foundation, the library was able to develop a new circulating collection of fitness equipment. This funding was in turn made possible by the library’s recruitment and retention of innovative staff members like Maria Davis, who bring to the library deep community connections and a willingness to leverage them.

Partnerships start internally

April Young is extremely supportive of the new ideas presented by staff members and always looks for ways to make their ideas happen. Supported ideas include aerobic and yoga classes, hydroponic gardening, StoryWalk, nutrition and cooking classes, purchasing health literature, gym passes, and buying two Charlie Carts, which are portable kitchens. Nearly all of these endeavors required financial support from partners and from the State Library, given the library’s small budget.

To generate these ideas, and to build the momentum to see them to fruition, April has monthly staff meetings, but perhaps more important are the spontaneous brainstorming sessions to keep open communication going. Different staff members have different skills and connections to move projects forward, so working together helps them achieve their goals. They all assist when possible and build on the foundation of what has already been established.

This collaborative culture enables staff to work together to see projects through to completion. In Rutherford County, a library worker knows they are not alone when they try something new: They have all the resources of the library and its staff to help them develop the initiative.

Learn more about the history of these efforts in the side-bar!

Popular cooking classes had been done by IT librarian Kenneth Odom in collaboration with the Cooperative Extension. Building on this success, Maria Davis applied for a grant for a Charlie Cart so that the library could do even more cooking classes. E. Engle was the initial staff member to use the Charlie Cart once it had arrived. Engle and Johanna, the library’s former bilingual staff member, then collaborated to do a Latin cooking series together. When COVID-19 arrived in Rutherford County, the library continued to use the Charlie Cart for virtual cooking classes and demonstrations.

Attuned to community needs

The community of Rutherford County, like much of rural America, is changing. A growing number of county residents speak Spanish and/or have Latin American heritage. Using Maria’s contact at RHI, the library secured from the health foundation 150-200 nonfiction Spanish titles, many health related. These materials are requested and used frequently.

“I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to provide part of our community that does not always get recognition with material that they can read in their own language in the privacy of their own home,” said April Young.

This initiative led to further Spanish/bilingual food & health programming. Charlie Cart, a type of mobile kitchen, was purchased with a grant requested by Maria Davis in 2019. Providing cooking and nutrition education touches a critical need for the community in which every child in the county is eligible for the free lunch program because it is a “tier one county.” Engle Troxler and Johanna started Latin Cooking Classes using the cart. The classes are welcoming to the Hispanic community, but with attendance by mostly retired white people, they also teach cultural awareness to the rest of the population. The Charlie Cart was shared with multiple branches, and eventually a second cart was also procured. The library even shared the Charlie Cart with the Cooperative Extension, allowing a different partner the ability to offer cooking programs. The health foundation also sponsored fitness equipment and gym passes. Has supported many library initiatives with Maria, even outside of formal funding cycles.

At your library, in your community, you will have a different array of staff and community interests. Nonetheless, you too can use the principles of ‘pooling your resources,’ ‘transforming perceptions,’ and ‘attending to community needs’ to make a difference in your community.

Lessons learned: Listen to your community and offer programs that resonate with your audiences

There are many ways to move in libraries

In addition to health and wellness benefits, these programs build community

Learn more

Click the links below to learn more about this library and its efforts!

Coop Ext: Heirloom Plants and Seed Saving. (n.d.). Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://rutherford.ces.ncsu.edu/2019/09/heirloom-plants-and-seed-saving/
Coop Ext: Hydroponics and Growing Indoors. (n.d.). Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://rutherford.ces.ncsu.edu/2019/08/hydroponics-and-growing-indoors/
What do libraries have to do with public health? (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2021, from https://ncallianceforhealth.salsalabs.org/weeklynewsletterapr8/index.html
New library director: April Young. (n.d.). Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://statelibrarync.org/ldblog/2015/01/02/new-library-director-rutherford-county-public-library/
RHI Legacy Foundation Awards $774,224 in Grants. (2017, October 9). RHI Legacy Foundation. https://rhilegacyfoundation.com/in-the-news/rhi-legacy-foundation-awards-774224-in-grants
Robbins, T. (2021, March 26). Story Walk: Take a walk, read a story at Rutherfordton park. WLOS. https://wlos.com/news/local/story-walk-take-a-walk-read-a-story-at-rutherfordton-park