Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Adewole Abioye, West Englewood Branch Library teen-services rep.
“I’m first-generation Nigerian-American. It’s interesting, in this day and age, to hear some of the questions I get. For instance: ‘Do Africans run around naked? Are there cities in Africa? Are there cars?’
“So last year we had a Taste of Africa program here. A lot of the kids couldn’t name a country on the continent, had never had African food before, had never listened to African music. So I had them listen to Fela Kuti, who created a form of music called Afrobeat. He’s like the African Bob Marley. They really connected to that. They loved it, actually.
“You hope that sometimes these things spark something inside of them. Something that will take them further. We do a lot of STEM-based activities too, along with a summer Teen Challenge program and a Barbershop at the Library program.
“One thing that sometimes makes this work difficult is the lack of parental participation. Kids need support, and a lot of them are sort of dumped here at the library. When I was a kid, I went to the library with my parents, and we would sit there and read together as a family.
“But in this neighborhood, there’s a lot of variables as to why parents can’t be there with their children, whether it’s that they have to work or maybe the kids live with grandparents, and we have a lot of homeless individuals, and yeah, some of the kids who participate in the teen program are homeless. I wish we could do more for them. It’s deeply unfortunate.
“One of my favorite teens lost his mom at a very young age. His father was never in his life, and the man who took responsibility for him died some years ago, so this kid doesn’t have a permanent address. I like him because there’s a thirst, there’s a hunger, that is fueled by his struggle. I love the fact that he comes and speaks in a very honest way about the things he wants to do in his life.
“There’s another kid who’s been in and out of foster homes all his life. He had a short stint in a juvenile center, but he’s a really good kid, and he draws and paints really well, but he can’t read. He told me this, and so now we’re working on him being able to read, and hopefully one day go back to school like he wants to do.
“This is the primary civic center in the neighborhood. When people think of libraries, they think of a quiet space, but we’re kind of loud. We have a number of adults who come in here looking for work, looking for—how can I put this?—just someplace to forget about what’s happening in their lives. It could just be sitting quietly, it could be listening to music, it could be eating candy and talking to a friend.
“There’s a lack of human compassion in our world. But there are a lot of beautiful, spirited individuals who come here. We have a number of regulars. We have teens and kids who always feel at home, who feel welcome, who feel loved. I want to be someone who’s deeply helpful, and if I can’t help you, I want to lead you to the right resource. Everyone has a story. And we don’t know what their story is. But everyone is dealing with something.”