When 15-year old Jose “Mickey” Velez learned the place he calls his second home was in jeopardy of getting shut down, he put up a fight—in the democratic way.
Though he’s not old enough to vote, Velez made sure elected officials heard his voice. He went door-to-door in Mott Haven, and collected over 100 signatures to stop proposed state budget cuts that would have forced public library branches around the city to close or drastically cut programs and services.
“I went out there because this is basically the only library we’ve got,” he said of his local branch at 140th and Alexander. “If the doors close, I’ll be in the streets getting in trouble and there’s lots of gang violence around here and I don’t want to be a part of it. The library allows me to have a very different life.”
Just days before the state budget became law inJune, about $36 million of the $40 million state budget for libraries was restored, allowing for them to avoid mass closings and program cuts.
Velez spends his days at the library, from opening until closing, rather than spending them at the homeless shelter where he lives with his mother and younger sister.
Velez and his family may soon have to look for a new primary address soon because the shelter is threatening to kick them out, but he’s relieved to know his home away from home is safe for another year.
Like Velez, fifth-grader Mariatou Coulibaly and her younger sister Aminata are regulars at the Mott Haven branch. Mariatou says her favorite day at the library is Tuesday, because of arts and crafts.
“It’s a fun place where you can read books and learn a variety of new things,” said Mariatou.
Children’s Librarian Lauren Kratz says there’s limited access to books in the area, making the branch’s presence all the more critical.
“We’re in a digital age and can’t be left behind, but we’re never going to lose books,” Kratz said.
The Mott Haven branch library offers classes for English as a Second Language learners, computer training for teens and adults, and a GED class for 16-24 year olds. This fall a financial literacy program for young adults and a science program for middle school and high school students will be added.
Last year, Velez had to write several essays for school, but didn’t own a computer. He knew just where to turn. Working at the library helped him pass the 10th grade and get closer to graduating, he says.
“When I was younger I wanted to be an astronaut like all little kids,” he says, but adds he’s now considering becoming an astronomer, chef, or photographer instead. “Basically,” he says, ” I believe I can do anything I want … there are so many opportunities, and seeing all the books about careers has given me new ideas.”
“There’s all these books here that open up new worlds to me,” he said.