ACPL librarian recognized nationally for creating programming for adults with disabilities

When Rebecca Wolfe started working for the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) 28 years ago, she worked in the Business and Technology Department, where she did a lot of research, helping people find answers to their questions.

She recalls answering questions such as, “What was the population of Fort Wayne in the 1800s?” or “ Can you find a picture that shows me the difference between a venomous versus non-venomous snake?” 

Courtesy of ACPLRebecca WolfeFrom settling bets for bar patrons to helping people remember who played Gilligan in Gilligan's Island (Bob Denver), rows and rows of reference books helped librarians like Wolfe find answers to everyone’s burning questions.

“All the stuff you Google now?” she says. “Yeah, they would call us back in the day, so it was a lot of fun.”

From the Business and Technology Department, she became the assistant manager in the Reader Services Department, and then in 2001 she became the branch manager at the Dupont Branch. Eventually, she also took on the role of teen librarian at Dupont.

“It's a very busy and large branch. It's one of the busier branches in our system, so it was pretty hectic, and chaotic. I was both manager and teen librarian, which was a lot of fun,” Wolfe says of her time at the Dupont Branch.

Wolfe says throughout her career with ACPL, she’s found the library is there to help everyone.

“I guess what I love the most is the library and library staff try really hard to meet the needs of everyone in the community regardless of what the needs are,” she says. “It's a really good feeling to work in a place that people love and a place that exists just to help and to meet the needs of the community.”

Then, in 2022, she moved to the Grabill Branch for a change of pace. 

“When I moved here to the Grabill Branch in 2022, my blood pressure dropped,” she says. “It's a lot quieter here and it's a very pleasant small town– very different atmosphere than a busy suburban branch like Dupont.”

It was a strategic move, giving Wolfe more time to focus on specialized programming, which she says is an unusual move and an unusual focus for a branch manager.

Back in 2010, while at Dupont, a teacher from Northrop High School asked Wolfe if she could do some sort of story time for her students, who had intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Alaina Massey, ACPLWolfe leads book clubs for participants.“I had never done that before,” she says. “I just tried different things and learned the best practices as I went.”

To her, it made sense that a library would offer this sort of programming.

“I think one of the roles of a public library is in some ways to make everyone feel seen and that has historically not happened to a lot of adults with intellectual disabilities,” she says. “It wasn't that long ago that a lot of them spent most of their lives in institutions and they were often overlooked or even kind of forgotten about. So it's a way for the library to find another group of folks and say, ‘We see you.’”

As the first round of students graduated, Wolfe was left wondering where they would go after high school. She started learning about various places in the community that serve adults with intellectual disabilities. Then, she started creating more outreach programs with those organizations, for teens and adults with IDD.

Alaina Massey, ACPLWolfe at Life Adult Day Academy.Then, a couple of years ago, a few of the ACPL managers were discussing how groups sometimes visit their branches. Wanting to make a bigger impact, they asked, “Why don’t we try doing some programs?”

“We thought, if they're going to be here, let's make sure that we're engaging with them, instead of them just using the meeting room to watch a movie or something,” Wolfe says. “So that's when we started the All Abilities Club.

She says they complete a lot of crafts and art projects and have the occasional speaker. Nathan Gidley, WANE 15’s Weekend Evening Meteorologist, visited the All Abilities Club recently to talk about the weather and sign autographs. Sometimes they have animal visitors, like snakes, which gives people the opportunity to hold and learn about the animals. In August, the Club will be visited by a miniature therapy horse– which Wolfe says she is very excited about. 

All Abilities Club is offered on a scheduled basis at three ACPL branches, and on a drop-in basis at another. 

Both the in-house programming and outreach programming provide storytimes, book clubs, crafts, and summer learning programs that connect what is largely an underserved community to the library.

“The library tries to do that with new immigrants and with seniors living in facilities and with parents with very young children and so it's a natural extension of what we've traditionally done,” Wolfe explains.

Alaina Massey, ACPLWolfe at Life Adult Day Academy.It also includes outreach programs with local organizations such as Life Adult Day Academy, Center for Life Transitions, Gigi’s Playhouse, Maple Seed Farms, Easterseals and Camp Red Cedar. 

Last year, ACPL held 194 programs for over 2,800 adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. This year the library anticipates hosting 53 All Abilities Club meetings and Wolfe is scheduled to lead more than 200 in-house and outreach programs. 
As the programming has developed, Wolfe has worked to ensure other librarians don’t have to go through the same trial-and-error process she did when creating programming for teens and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“I would probably cringe at some stuff I did early that didn't work so well,” Wolfe says.

When she first started, she only knew of a few libraries with similar programs, but they were scattered across the country and not communicating with one another about their IDD programming. 

“There weren't a lot of people I could talk to try to figure out how to do a storytime for teens and adults with disabilities,” Wolfe says of the program's early days. “I just learned as I went.” 

There were Facebook groups for librarians who create or run programming to share ideas, but Wolfe rarely, if ever, found people discussing programming for individuals with IDD. 

Alaina Massey, ACPLWolfe at Life Adult Day Academy.“I got the feeling there weren't a lot of places doing this kind of programming,” she says. “So a year ago, I started a Facebook group, ‘Library Programming for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities.’ It's up to almost 900 members, which is fun, and it is primarily library staff, who are either already doing this kind of programming or who are interested in starting, and the idea there is to create more of a national dialogue.”

And that’s what she did– Wolfe’s efforts to provide education around this type of programming have garnered national attention from the library community. This year she was recognized as part of the National Movers & Shakers Awards from the Library Journal. 

Library Journal’s Executive Editor Lisa Peets says the 2024 Movers & Shakers represent a range of innovative, proactive and supportive work.

In April of this year, Wolfe presented her programming at the Public Library Association’s national conference in Columbus, Ohio. She shared practical strategies and tools for developing inclusive programming, as well as the benefits of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment in the library.

Susan P. Baier, ACPL executive director, says Wolfe’s work is an inspiration.

“She saw a need, sought out resources, and when she didn’t find them– she created them,” Baier says. “And now she’s sharing those tools with others. We are so proud of the impact she is having and that she is extending our ability to be a place where everyone belongs.”

Feedback from participants in Wolfe's program.While Wolfe says she feels grateful to potentially be impacting programming across the country, she’s felt the impact of this work on a more personal level.

“I'm a four-year breast cancer survivor and that changed my life profoundly,” she says. “And that combined with working with adults with intellectual disabilities has really made me a wiser and more caring person, I think. I'm better able to handle things that come my way.”

In addition to the new perspective on life, Wolfe says she’s made friends along the way. Friends like David, Jonathan, Paul and Sam from the book club at Gigi’s Playhouse.

“They're not just book club members– we're good friends,” she says.

Alaina Massey, ACPLWolfe at Life Adult Day Academy.She says it’s important to her to find ways to connect with each individual that comes in. It comes back to her strong belief that the library’s purpose is to make people feel seen.

“I want everybody who comes to a program or who's at a facility I visit to feel like I saw them,” she explains. “You know, I really saw them and was glad they were there. They don't, a lot of times adults with intellectual disabilities don't get that enough. And so if I can stand up and make somebody feel seen, I feel like I've done what I was there to do.
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Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.