JLG’s June 2021 Librarian of the Month honor goes to Dowd Education Center and its passionate and community-driven director, Erin Priest. A returning JLG member, Erin caught our eye because of her dedication to her community and students. Here’s Erin’s story...
From School Teacher to Dowd Reading Specialist
After falling in love with Columbus, Ohio and graduating from Ohio State University, Erin Priest and her husband planted roots. She soon found herself working in a school classroom, but as a teacher, Erin was constantly torn apart by the lack of resources she could offer her students that were struggling, despite the school’s best intentions. During our interview, Erin spoke on her frustration and sadness in knowing that some of her students were forced to meet academic standards while simultaneously dealing with barriers at home that made their academic progress more difficult (like hunger or homelessness). “Schools and educators help when they can, but there’s no way for them to do it all,” she said. When a part-time position as the reading specialist for the Dowd Education Center opened, she knew it would be perfect for her, so she quickly applied and then accepted the position.
Committed to Helping
The Dowd Education Center is a non-profit K-8 education and youth development program that is part of the Homeless Families Foundation in Columbus. The HFF’s goal is to create family-centered, hopeful, nurturing environments for youth and their families facing homelessness or at risk of being homeless. The foundation offers families year-round programs that support housing, education, and other services ranging from prenatal care to kindergarten readiness. Dowd itself is an afterschool and summer program that provides its students with hot meals, homework assistance, and education enrichment, as well as activities and programs such as robotics, fitness, art, theater trips, and even mental health services. “Our goal,” Erin added, “isn't to get kids out of their neighborhoods, but to empower them to lift up not just themselves and their lives, but their communities and neighbors.”
Becoming Dowd Associate Director and Librarian
When Erin first started at Dowd, she was a part-time reading intervention specialist who inherited a small, aging library. The space felt dull, with 3 sagging shelves haphazardly stocked full of mostly out-of-date books. Erin, however, saw promise in the space, and made it her personal mission to turn the library into something her readers would enjoy. First, she hosted book drives, held fundraisers, and so much more to afford new shelves and furniture. Then, she set to work updating the collection. Today, she describes the library as “quiet, calm, and pretty.” The small space now sports 9 book shelves, as well!
Within 2 years, Erin was given the opportunity to take a full-time position as associate director, expanding her influence past the library. However, the small, 9-shelf room remained special to her heart, and she continued to maintain it while also being associate director (as we all know librarians wear so many hats – really, how do you all do it?!). As associate director, she’s been able to take her passion for reading into more programs and opportunities for her students. Erin has expanded and helped update their classroom libraries, created reading mentor programs, and amid COVID-19 shutdowns, helped the Dowd Center transition to a “learning extension program” with students enjoying and visiting their facilities during the school day now, too. Her favorite program since becoming director, however, is the reading mentorship program she spearheaded 5 years ago.
Photos of the Dowd Center Library
Growing Young Readers Through Mentorship
When the “third grade guarantee” was implemented a few years ago, teachers around the state were forced to contend with reading comprehension scores as the chokepoint for moving students onto the fourth grade. Realizing 23 of their 25 students were not prepared to pass the reading requirements, Erin, who was still the reading intervention specialist at the time, was forced to come up with a plan to help. She quickly set up a mentorship program where volunteers would meet with one-on-one with students and simply read and complete little activities with them dedicated to world-building and comprehension. It was a tremendous success, and over the following years the program expanded greatly. Today, the program is so large that Erin and her team can no longer manage it alone; they’ve partnered with Big Brother/Big Sister and MENTOR Central Ohio to help keep it growing. Wow!
But increasing reading comprehension isn’t just about reading consistently; it is about reading things that engage the mind and imagination, no matter if they’re fantasy, realistic fiction, or nonfiction. Erin’s partnership with JLG has helped her expand her library’s collection with new release titles that really speak to her students.
“Our kids see every aspect of life, and our library should reflect that. Not only what they look like, but what they see, hear, feel, and how the world just looks different to them,” she says. “That should all be reflected in the literature that’s available to them.”
With the help of her JLG subscription and collection development specialist, she was able to build a package perfect for her small, nonprofit budget filled with books that will challenge her students and help them see their world in literature (even before becoming a member, she often attended our in-person warehouse sales since she lives close to our offices and could stretch her budget even further that way!).
A Decal in the Dowd Center Library
An Advocate for Dowd and the Columbus Community
Her work has expanded Dowd in more ways than the library, too. In the 9 years she has been at Dowd (7 as associate director) their staff has increased from 25 to 75 employees. Thanks to things like grants, government funding, donations, and the hard work of Erin and her colleagues, Dowd is able to support and foster growing minds and aspirations, pushing young people to strive and reach a better future as a community.
When asked what she wanted readers to know about her work in Columbus and at Dowd, Erin said this: “It can really be misleading to see the title of our organization. Yes, we serve a lot of families that are homeless, but very few of our Dowd kids are homeless or have been homeless. They’re just living in an environment or family that needs a little extra support to prevent them from maybe one day becoming homeless. Our kids are just kids. They love all of the things that kids love – to play, learn, watch TikTok videos, build relationships, and everything else. They’re just kids, and they deserve every chance that everyone else has. We just really want everybody to see them in the positive way that we do, and know that they are capable of everything any other kid is capable of, they just might need a few extra resources.”
In a few short months, Erin and her family will be moving away from Columbus, Ohio to start a new life in Texas. But she’ll leave behind a legacy of the outstanding work thanks to the heart and effort she put into her community and students. We at JLG know she’ll be leaving it a better place than she found it, and we look forward to seeing the amazing things she’ll accomplish in her new hometown!