When Ferguson, Missouri, elementary school teacher Carrie Pace learned schools would remain closed all week after violence erupted on their city’s streets in the wake of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, it never occurred to her to sit at home and wait it out. “[I was] just looking for something to do, looking for a way to help,” said the 31-year-old art teacher.
Pace decided to start reaching out to other teachers to see if she could organize programs for the kids of Ferguson. She immediately thought of the library.
It started small at first. Pace and her teacher friends began to email parents and post on social media, inviting kids to come to the Ferguson Municipal Public Library. Initially just 12 showed up, but by Thursday they had 60 volunteers and roughly 150 kids, with some spilling out to another space in a nearby church.
“We’ve essentially taken over the library,” said acting principal Antona Smith. They are offering math, writing and literature classes just like in school. "They’re having full academics and teachers are coming with full curricula ready to teach!” And the kids, from pre-k to high school, are ready to learn.
Soon after, local food banks and even neighbors began dropping off food to ensure breakfast and lunch could be offered to the students. Teach for America and other educational groups are now also among the volunteers.
“There’s just been an outpouring of support,” Pace said, as the nation watched the developing turmoil in Ferguson. “I had someone call me from Michigan and say, ‘What can I send to you?’”
The generosity is a stark contrast to the violent and racially-charged protests in Ferguson that caused the school closures. “We don’t talk about it, when they’re in here this is safe quiet space,” Smith said. Volunteers will pull kids aside if they seem upset, but she said most are just enjoying being back in class. “It is wonderful. I’m looking at smiles and laughter, that’s what’s going on.”
Smith, who is an educator, drove 20 miles from Kirkwood, Missouri to help. “I’m also a parent. My last two children are in elementary school … they had their first day of school. Kids in Ferguson haven’t.” So she says she’s thrilled to pitch in and organize the classrooms at the library. “It is an amazing thing to see. There’s a lot of learning going on.”
There’s also a lot of appreciation. Smith and Pace have been receiving a steady stream of heartfelt “thank yous” from parents. Pace said some of the parents were left without childcare this week and needed somewhere for their kids to be while they’re at work.
“It’s expensive and we have a lot of families that are in need and it’s a really difficult situation," she said.
The library programs are helping to bridge that gap while also getting the learning started. “Our community values education - as all parents do,” Pace said.
Schools are expected to open Monday, and until then, Pace is glad she’s been able to help provide a place where kids could learn. “I hope that it’s healing in some way, if nothing else I think it is a total breath of fresh air for the kids who can be here.” And, she thinks the kids will be happy to get back to their usual schools Monday, with a jump start from this week’s classes.
“They will be so ready!” she added.