By Jasmine Rockow

The Bulletin

A volunteer with the Deschutes Public Library has brought a new tool to the region’s arsenal against poverty, at least for now.

Since September, Portland State University intern Sarah Kelley has served as a source of information and support for people trying to access social services. She sets up shop in the Downtown Bend, Sisters and Redmond libraries for specific times each week. There’s no appointment necessary and no intake forms to be filled out. Some people come in with a simple question, others may sit down with Kelley and get help filling out a housing application, she said.

“The idea is, put social services where people naturally are,” Kelley said Tuesday. “A lot of people use library space, because they don’t have anywhere else they can be. It’s a natural connecting point to someone who can provide information to those resources, right where they are at.”

Kelley, 40, of Bend, is working on her master’s in social work and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s constantly shifting network of social services and resources. Passionate about connecting people with needed services, she sought an internship with the Deschutes Public Library and modeled it on other programs around the country that have placed social workers in libraries as a source of information and support.

Kelley started her internship in September, and it will end in June. Because she is a volunteer, it costs the library nothing to have her there. But Kelley has discovered a huge need for help navigating social programs, so she is searching for funds that would allow the library to keep her as a paid social worker after her internship ends.

The idea of having social workers in libraries is gaining traction across the country. There are iterations of the program in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each library faces challenges, and programs reflect the needs of their specific communities.

Kelley’s work in Deschutes County has attracted the attention of other libraries in the state. Beaverton City Library plans to visit her at the Bend library in May, according to Holly McKinley, public services manager for the Deschutes library.

Kelley has noticed differences among the libraries in the county. Sisters doesn’t have nearly as many social service agencies as Bend or Redmond, but the small town does have a strong sense of community, Kelley said. She is often approached by people who don’t need resources themselves, but want to learn about what she does so they can spread the word to others who may need help.

“People (in Sisters) step in to fill gaps where agencies don’t exist,” Kelley said. “Probably one of every three people I talk to in Sisters is a community member saying ‘This is neat, tell me what you do and who I can share it with.’ It’s a different way of disseminating information.”

Prior to her partnership with the library, Kelley worked as a homeless outreach coordinator with Deschutes County Behavioral Health for more than eight years. Although she is not new to social work, she was surprised by who most often seeks her help at the library. Most of the people coming in to see her are not necessarily homeless, but still struggling to make ends meet. More often she finds herself in a preventive role, helping older people avoid homelessness while struggling to pay rising rents and food costs on a fixed income.

Kelley has been collecting data and compiling it into a report for her studies at Portland State University. Between last October and February, she helped 182 people in Bend, Redmond and Sisters. She spent an average of 24 minutes with each person, with visits ranging anywhere from 5 to 75 minutes. The average age of people seeking her services was 52, with a range from 18 to 78. The ratio of men and women has been equal.

She connected people to 200 services in Central Oregon. She completed applications for housing, health insurance, food stamps and Social Security; set appointments with physical and mental health providers; referred people to employment agencies and helped them with resumes; and she connected domestic violence survivors with legal and support services.

Ideally, the library would set up a program that provides space for a social worker in all libraries, McKinley said. That requires money. Kelley is searching for grants that would allow the library to create something more permanent. If she’s unsuccessful, the role she created at the library will no longer be available to customers.

— Reporter: 541-383-0354,