YUMA, Arizona- The Yuma County Library District was recognized by the National Association of Counties (NACo) in their recent annual conference, where Library Director Lisa Mendez accepted the award along with Yuma County Supervisors Lynne Pancrazi and Martin Porchas.
The Library developed the Smart Start Kit program to offer children and their caregivers early literacy through take-home interactive kits.
Here is the original article written by Mary Ann Barton, County News Editor & Senior Writer.
The local library has always been a hub of activity for residents and their families, for story hours and checking out books for their kids.
The library took childhood learning on step further when they introduced the Smart Start Kids Program, which offers county library-holders books, games and toys in a bag that can be checked out. The bagged items come in different educational categories and can be checked out for three weeks. Toys and items, including the bags they come in, are sanitized between uses.
Brenda Cervantes, grants and special projects administrator, for Yuma County Library District, has been in the job for more than a year. The program started when she worked in the county’s Youth Services department.
“This was an idea that my director had along with the Youth Services manager at the time,” she said.
The idea began after families, especially with children under age 5, asked for board books and toys. “You know what, a lot of these community members don’t have access to preschool,” Cervantes noted.
“There are lots of families where both parents are working, and a large percentage of our county is from the Latino community, where they traditionally depend on family members or close friends to take care of their children,” she said. “They’re always coming over here to take advantage of our programs.”
“People would come in and say, ‘Hey do you have toys we can borrow here?’ Before COVID, we’d let parents borrow toys and they’d sit down right there in the library and that’s how they would do it.”
A state grant helped pay for educational toys for the program. The toys and books offer children more than 20 themes (such as Alphabet, Animals, Bilingual, Science and Numbers and Counting) to choose from. Each kit has different items depending on the theme. The Numbers and Counting kit includes a few books about numbers, a small toy where children put numbers together, a counting toy and bean bags. “That way, a parent and child have a variety of ways to play. Play is the best way for children to learn.”
Anyone can check out a kit, as long as they are a county resident and have a library card. They offer kits in English and Spanish. They fly off the shelves.
“They do get borrowed a lot,” Cervantes said.
Yuma County currently offers the program at its main library with hopes of adding it to its other branches.
“We are going to extend this if we get funding again, so the rest of the branches get similar products,” Cervantes said. “The program is in high demand.”
The pilot program began with a $3,000 grant that the county used to purchase toys. After researching similar programs at other libraries, they purchased the books and toys from educational toy companies.
In addition to seeing how quickly items are checked out, the library conducted a survey to gauge the program’s popularity. “After talking to our community, we can see just how happy they are about it,” Cervantes said.
The program became extra popular during the pandemic, after the library reopened in October 2020.
“There are some educational activities you can do online, but there is only so much a screen will do,” Cervantes noted. “You need something hands-on.”
The kits that are the most popular are Science and Bilingual.
“Those were the two people are always asking for,” Cervantes said. “The Science kit involves recipes with Jello. Lots of kiddos love to play with their food. The Bilingual one, that’s the one we thought would help a lot of families trying to learn English; it’s also for families who want to teach their kids Spanish.”
“When I used to do the bilingual story time, parents would say ‘Hey, what else do you have that we could use to help our kids learn Spanish?’ The program came about because we were listening to our community, and asking them what they wanted, what they needed.”