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Bringing storytime to the long wait for social services

A One-Stop Shop for Social Services

For many, the Eastmont Town Center in East Oakland is the go-to place to apply for food stamps, get medical coverage, find childcare, and get job assistance. It was once the Eastmont Mall, but as income dropped and crime rose in the surrounding area, Planned Parenthood and the Oakland Public Library moved in, Mervyn’s became the Oakland Police Department, and JC Penney’s became the social service agency.

But so many services under one roof means you’re going to have to wait in line. Normally, it's advisable to leave your children at home, which can be close to impossible if you're waiting in line for childcare assistance in the first place. That’s why Sylvia Soublet, Media Officer for the Alameda County Social Service Agency, decided to transform the waiting room into a reading circle under a new experiment called “Read While You Wait.”

Higher demand, longer wait times

On average, 700 to 1,000 people wait in line at the Eastmont social service agency every day. According to Soublet, the volume of people waiting in the social service agency has increased by 20 - 30% since the economic downturn.

She sentenced herself to the Room of Waiting and watched children laugh, scream, and run around, transforming the waiting room into freeze tag games and comedy hour with their imagination. Soublet wanted to transform the waiting room, too. “I immediately thought about  when I was a child,” Soublet said. “I had fond memories of when the bookmobile used to come to our neighborhood and how much fun that was.”

Like the book mobiles that came to her house when she was a kid, she decided to bring the library to the waiting room. When she approached librarians in Alameda County, Children’s Librarian Amy Martin signed up.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Martin said. “It’s very simple. I just bring books down here a couple of times a month and read to them for half an hour. A lot of the kids end up coming to the library after I see them here. It just seems like a really easy and successful thing to do.” Martin said that she’ll end up seeing 90% of the children from the reading circle back at the library.

Bringing Story Time to the Waiting Room

Bringing story time to the waiting room is something of an experiment in reaching out to an audience that isn’t aware they’re going to be an audience until it happens. All that’s separating the reading circle from the waiting room is a pane of glass. But when she reads, Amy Martin is unphased by the noise around her. She reads to about fourteen kids, while sitting on the floor, surrounded by a pile of books. 

“There's no walls,” Sylvia Soublet said. “There's nothing to buffer the noise, but it's really interesting how intently children listen when it's presented to them in ways that are interesting and engaging to them. We've noticed that the noise level in the waiting room goes down a few decimals.”

Amy Martin’s reading is one of two reading circles in the Read While You Wait program. Librarian Laurie Willhalm of the Oakland Public Library reads at the social service agency in Downtown Oakland. “The people who come to the library are self-select. They come to the library, hear about library activities, and then they come again,” Willhalm said. “Coming to a waiting room like this, we meet people who may or may not have come to the library before. So it's an opportunity for us to reach a population that is not self-select.”            

Making waiting room more bearable

When their number is called, many parents have to convince their child to leave the reading circle. On her way out, parent Davina Johnson, says she was surprised to see something like this in a waiting room.

“It was nice for the kids to have something to do while the parents are getting things done,” Johnson said. “My daughter enjoyed it. I could tell.”

Even adults without children look on at storytime to see what's going on. Possibly, they're wishing they had one of their own. “They are listening just as much as children ever do,” Willhalm said. “Just today I saw a couple that were actively listening. She was singing along with me and doing some of the hand movements.”            

But adults do have other options – the Social Service Agency has arranged for someone to push around a cart full of magazines for them to read. 

You can find a calendar with scheduled readings here. If you’d like to volunteer, please contact Read While You Wait program specialist Andrea Wong at andwong@acgov.org.

Crosscurrents Oakland