Closing the book

Colonial Heights Library program brought together families from struggling ‘Fruitridge finger’

The Colonial Heights Library has to make tough choices on its programs.

The Colonial Heights Library has to make tough choices on its programs.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the July 12, 2018, issue.

Just blocks from the Colonial Heights Library are some of South Sacramento’s most challenged neighborhoods—high-fenced avenues where endemic poverty and startling health outcomes have left a cloud over part of the city’s future. Yet area families say the art deco confines of Stockton Boulevard’s library was a gathering spot that felt hopeful. It was a place that helped toddlers wake up to the spell of music while their parents learned to lean on each other.

That support network was recently disrupted when library officials canceled the program, choosing to replace it with a different set of offerings. Supporters of the program argue it was a community-building asset that was free and within walking distance for those on the surrounding street. Library officials counter they’re still having to make tough budget decisions seven years after their funding plummeted by nearly $3 million.

The canceled program was run by Ken Cooper, better known to local families as Mr. Cooper. The weekly class Cooper ran in the library’s community room involved parents gathering in a circle around two large rugs, holding their toddlers on their laps, while Cooper would sing songs and encourage the little ones to clap. Singalongs and freeze dancing were also part of the hour. For Rachel Gregg, who took her son to the program for over a year, it provided a strong parental support network. Gregg says roughly 30 to 40 families attended each class.

“I remember thinking, ’These are my people now,’” Gregg recalled. “It was just an incredible sense of belonging, especially being around other parents who know what you’re going through.”

Losing the class had an impact on Gregg’s son, too. “He has a verbal delay,” Gregg said. “I think it really helped his confidence. When the class was canceled, he was just getting brave enough to get off my lap and dance with the other kids.”

Aubra Fletcher is another parent upset about the program getting axed. Fletcher, a single mother, had brought her son to Cooper’s class since fall 2016.

“I was really saddened by the loss of it. I couldn’t understand why,” Fletcher said. “It was really good exposure to music for my son. … Many of the songs were educational. The messages were important. It’s all those little building blocks that are great for kids.”

The Colonial Heights Library is at the intersection of Stockton Boulevard and 21st Street, bordering a jurisdictional anomaly often called the “Fruitridge finger.” The infamous finger is a contorted peninsula of unincorporated county land that juts into the city’s official boundaries. The area has some of the region’s worst poverty rates and health statistics. Some 22 nonprofit groups, along with coalitions like the Black Child Legacy Campaign, are working inside the Fruitridge finger to help restitch its social fabric.

Gregg and Fletcher say that residents from both sides of Stockton Boulevard enjoyed Cooper’s program, with Tahoe Park families and south city families coming together there. Single parents, same-sex parents and parents of all income levels would offer each other encouragement.

“It wasn’t patronizing, everyone felt welcome,” Fletcher said.

Sacramento Public Library CEO Rivkah Sass said Cooper’s program is still being funded at the Belle Cooledge Library in Land Park and the Robbie Waters Library in the Pocket-Greenhaven area. Sass said it was axed from the Colonial Heights lineup because her team felt other initiatives would be more useful there. While Cooper’s music class is gone, the library is offering bilingual, hip-hop and gardening story times, the latter which incorporates food literacy.

“We want to make sure we’re offering programs that meet the needs of the community,” Sass said, adding that Sacramento’s library system has never recovered from the blood-letting it suffered during the financial meltdown. “We’ve found a way to fund 12 libraries with the budget for 10. … We have to make choices every day.”

Gregg and a number of other parents have been searching for a venue and funding mechanism to bring Cooper’s program back to the area. The YMCA has expressed interest in possibly sponsoring it at the Tahoe Park Community Center. Gregg says she and the other families would love the help, though it frustrates her that in that scenario the program would no longer be in walking distance for neighborhoods west of Stockton Boulevard.

“There’s all this lip service being paid to supporting the arts, but now we have a real opportunity to keep that going outside the central city, and we’re not,” Gregg said.