There are times when following an instinct becomes a greater good one
could never imagine.
In 2000, Jean Kaleda noticed that Spanish-speaking residents were flocking to the area to live and work, enrolling their children in the local schools.
“I was head of Patchogue-Medford Library reference then, and I loved it,” recalled Kaleda. “But I was removed from the community and I could see
Spanish was being spoken all over the place here.”
A year later she started a new department, Spanish Outreach, as a way for the
library to become an informative, safe community hub for the Latino population.
It has been a long, productive journey, with the library welcoming vibrant bi-monthly meetings of mothers along with citizenship classes. Local school, government, and police officials explain their rolls here as informational tools, resume writing and homework help are regularly offered, and the space has provided a source of comfort when tragedy hit.
Kaleda, who was feted as SEPA Mujer’s 2019 Advocate of the Year, will be retiring on Friday.
Kaleda was asked how she initially was able to communicate the new department at the library to her intended public.
“I saw an article in the Long Island Advance about Martha Vasquez, who
was a banker,” Kaleda answered. “She was from Ecuador and she mentioned
a local group, Ecuadorians Unidos de Long Island, that met in a room above
the Chinese restaurant. I went and introduced myself.”
Many were from Qualecelos, and they read a weekly paper from that city, El Pueblo, that was distributed in Patchogue.
“I bought a copy,” she said. “I figured if so many were looking at news in this paper, I could get the word out about us, so I emailed the publisher.” The publisher never answered Kaleda. But he did print Kaleda’s email announcing the new department.
“A person from the area came in and asked for a library card. Then several more applied,” she said of the response a short time later.
Kaleda, who took high school Spanish and majored in the language in college, had spent a year in Madrid. While her language skills had been latent for a while, they took off in her new position.
“After a couple of years offering programs in Spanish, we were attracting 75 to 100 patrons to classes regularly,” she said. “Village staffers would come in to discuss how to pay a ticket; we had immigration attorneys discuss laws, and Suffolk police who spoke. The ideas for the meetings came from the patrons. They wanted the basics and they told us.”
La Madras, a lively group of moms who meet in the evening, began after
it was noted that Spanish-speaking moms with children weren’t participating.
“That came about because of Ericka,” Kaleda recalled. When Ericka Uribe Carey, who originally hailed from Mexico City, pushed her baby stroller through the doors of the Patchogue-Medford Library for the first time, it was a new world to her.
“I was missing home and was depressed,” she told the Advance back in 2015 when the group received a significant community award. “When we come from other countries, we feel like we don’t fit in.” Carey approached Kaleda; encouraged, she formed the group in 2010.
“They needed a support group,” Kaleda said. “We alternate now, one night of fun and the next an informative meeting with school superintendents, other officials and police. Because information is powerful.”
Patchogue-Medford School District statistics listed 43 percent of students
as Spanish speaking, she said. “The library district is pretty identical at
nearly 50 percent,” she said.
“On any given night, pre-COVID, this place was filled with kids taking English-speaking homework help and citizenship classes.”
In November 2008, after Marcelo Lucero was set upon by several students and murdered, the library opened its doors for a bilingual public meeting. Mayor Paul Pontieri and Suffolk police officials attended.
“We already had a number of meetings with the library before Marcelo’s
murder prior to that one in 2008, meetings set up by Jean and Gilda Ramos;
[Spanish-speaking library assistant] they brought us into the Latino community. The murder happened on a Saturday. That Monday, I went to the
library and looked for Jean and Gilda. Both were wonderful. Jean handles
herself in such a quiet and dignified way with the community; she had their
total trust and it was that backbone of trust that we could work our way
through it. She advised me on things I needed to stress. It was, ‘How do we
do this together?’ It was a community decision. I don’t know where that incident would have gone without Jean and the library. They were committed
that the things we did were consistent with the values we have.
“When it comes to Jean and the library, we probably have the premier program on diversity and inclusion in the greater Patchogue area.”
“I would say over 100 people came,” recalled Kaleda. “It was a two-hour
meeting, and the mayor spoke. The bulk of the meeting included questions to him and the police.”
But the library has also been a place for celebration. It was named as a 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service winner that included a trip to the White House. Zheni Velasquez, who came to the library and participated in a Conversational English group taught by Kaleda several years before, had transformed her life as a Spanish language teacher at Ducky Pond Preschool and as a teacher’s aide with the Family Service League. A sterling example of the library’s influence, she went to the White House with Kaleda and others.
And Ramos, the first Spanish-speaking librarian assistant, a civil service
category approved in 2007, was chosen as the Library Journal’s 2011 Paralibrarian of the Year. Ramos worked with Kaleda in helping to heal the
community after Lucero was killed.
Kaleda’s job as head of Spanish Outreach includes regular meetings with her bilingual staff, about eight. “I do a lot of grant writing, working with the school district, arranging speakers and listening to my staff,” she said. The relationship-building with the community, families, patrons, the school district, community organizations, village officials, police, and of course, staff, has been amazing, she said. She also noted the importance of SEPA Mujer, which established itself in Patchogue. “When they came here I thought I’d won the lottery,” she said. “Here we had nothing as an advocacy group. The library was the advocacy group.”
Patchogue-Medford Library director Danielle Paisley called Kaleda “my hero.”
“She taught me how to create a diverse environment in our library so that our staff is welcoming and trained,” Paisley said. “She wrote the book on outreach and her style of outreach is our style for everyone. Very often she recruits people in the community to work here so they reflect the Hispanic patrons who come to our library. Her work has really strengthened the community.”
The Port Jefferson Station resident will pick up her new life next weekend. And yep, she’s excited about her new era.
“I’m going to Montauk for a week, and to Mexico for three months; then I’m addressing a zillion things in my home,” she said. “The plan was to work as a foster grandparent preCOVID, but I’ll probably work with Island Harvest.”
Go get ’em, Jean!