Friday, December 16, 2016

Cook Library Scholars: A Second Family

“My mom tells me that I need to be a good student so I can be a good example for my younger sisters. Then they can look up to me and have a better future too.”

Dominga and Liliana at the Cook Library Center
This is a quote from 13-year-old Liliana who is a force to be reckoned with. Her presence is calm, genuine, and reserved, but there’s a quiet strength behind her black-rimmed glasses. You would never know by looking at her that this smiling, studious teen has endured the pain of loss. The grief she experienced in suddenly losing her father did not defeat or define her but instead molded her into the resilient and empathetic girl she is today.

Liliana’s favorite subject is science, specifically geology, and she loves playing with her two younger sisters. She even named her youngest sister, Juliemar, when she was born. The summer cooking class at the Cook Library is one of her favorite programs because “cooking is not just a girl’s job, the boys need to know how to cook too!”

While Liliana doesn’t know exactly what she wants to be when she grows up, the options she listed were anything but uninspiring. “I want to be some kind of a doctor when I grow up, maybe a dentist.” She has high goals for herself, and betting on her success is a safe one.

Liliana’s involvement at the Cook Library Center was once sporadic. She began coming to the center in third grade, and she became a Cook Library Scholar as a fifth grader three years ago. She described how Cook Library Scholars supports students academically through homework help and encouraging personal growth. Students feel they can trust the teachers there, she says, and they now have the resources to be the best students possible.

When asked if she liked being a Cook Library Scholar, Liliana simply glowed. “In the last few years they became like a family to me. Now I have two families—my home family and my Cook Library Scholars family.”

Beyond educational support, the Cook Library Scholars program offers emotional solace to students and their families, including Liliana’s. Three years ago, Liliana’s father passed away unexpectedly.

“Miss Monica helped me a lot when my dad died,” Liliana affirmed. Monica Zavala, the Cook Library Scholars Program Manager, was sitting next to Liliana. They shared a loving squeeze. “And that’s when I started coming here. Because before then my dad said he believed in me, and that I could reach my goals. He didn’t know how to read or write, but he believed I could do it all on my own.”

Liliana’s father was an absolute supporter and advocate for his children’s education. He believed in his daughters’ abilities so adamantly that he didn’t think they needed homework help or tutoring and that they could achieve whatever dream they had independently.  It was not until he passed that their family realized the Cook Library Center could provide more than educational support—it was a place to help them cope.

“I remember him saying that one of his dreams for me was that I had to finish college because he wanted us to have good careers.” Liliana’s voice began to falter as she courageously tried not to cry. “He always told me I was a good kid. I remember the last day he was with us, he was leaving to go to work and he told my mom everything would work out.”

After Liliana’s dad passed away, her mother signed them up for the Cook Library Scholars program. “We would not have come here if my dad were still here, and now I’ve learned it’s important to have another family around so they can support you in the hard times.”

Liliana described how Monica has been a guiding light since they met. “I think for me, Miss Monica is like a second mother. If something happens to my mom, I can trust her with everything.” Liliana’s eyes welled up with tears as she described the warmth she has felt at the Cook Library Center. “Everybody here is part of a family. I treat everyone here like my siblings.”

Monica shared how Liliana’s mother, Dominga, has been a source of fortitude for their family. “I know her mom, and she’s always helping others, is always active in the community.” Monica explained how Dominga is her right hand—the ultimate active parent in the Cook Library Scholars program. She is one of those parents who goes above and beyond in supporting the community around her in any capacity, from cleaning up after a library event to helping other families in the program find a house to rent.  Dominga is a perfect example of a woman who is paying it forward, and her daughters are watching and following her lead.

The Cook Library Center has not just been a place of healing for Liliana, but for their entire family. Monica talks about how Dominga will often bring her daughters to the library to play and relax as a family. There is an air of cathartic peace for families here. The network of support that has formed is one that holds each other up. Families even raised money to assist Dominga with funeral costs.

Dominga has instilled in her daughters a willingness to serve and strive, even in the face of adversity. After her husband’s passing, Dominga continued to give to the community, if not even more so than before. “She is a woman who just continues forward,” Monica said. “She is a woman who said ‘yes, I need help at this moment, but I am going to keep going because I want something better for my girls.’” Monica recognizes this trait being passed on to her daughters. “Liliana is a great student, she’s been so strong. I am so proud of her. She works for what she wants.”

“Working with our Cook Library Scholars, every one of them has a story,” Monica says. “Some are happy, some are sad, but seeing them every day, how they are growing and changing, it enters you and becomes a part of you. When they’re not here, I miss them. I want to see their smiles and hear their laughter. That’s why we are here.”

Liliana, her sisters, and her mom will never have to feel they are alone. Whether it is a shoulder to lean on or community to celebrate with, the staff, students, and parents at the Cook Library Center have become a family.