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After a slow start, social workers at St. Louis County libraries are meeting a need

A young White woman with light red hair sits in a chair, her arms crossed over one leg. Behind her is a shelf of books.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Social worker Katie Lappe is photographed on Thursday at the Natural Bridge Branch of the St. Louis County Library. Lappe is one of five social workers operating out of St. Louis County Library branches, part of a program the county is looking to make permanent.

A program that put social workers in five St. Louis County Library branches has helped connect nearly 200 people to services since it started in June.

The library announced the Community Resource Initiative in May 2021, but it took more than two years to get contracts signed and staff hired.

“We were really hoping to get started sooner than we did,” said Kristen Sorth, the library’s executive director. “Looking for social workers during this time, where it's hard to find people for positions, was definitely a challenge.”

Lead social worker Katie Lappe was one of the five willing to answer that call.

“Libraries are the only place that remains that anyone at all can come to,” she said. “And that’s totally aligned with social work values.”

Lappe is based at the Natural Bridge branch in Normandy. She said workers at the branch are grateful she is there.

“There's certain people I've seen six times, because to even start accessing a resource, they need their ID first, or they need a phone number to receive the call that they have an appointment. And they might not have any of those things,” she said. “We have the capacity to spend an hour and a half with them, where a library staff can’t possibly do that.”

In addition to Natural Bridge, the social workers are based at the Florissant Valley, Lewis and Clark, Rock Road and Weber Road locations. People can drop in at any of the locations or make an appointment online. If the social workers have time in their schedule, they will drive to a branch to meet a person.

According to the library, the 197 people served live in 50 different ZIP codes in the St. Louis region, including Illinois, though the vast majority of those needing services have lived in north St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The St. Louis County Children’s Services Fund is covering the majority of the cost of the two-year pilot program. Library officials say the fund is committed to the program long-term.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.