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We Live Here Auténtico! | How Can I Help You? | Literacy, Service and a Librarian's Love Centers a City

Collage of Fairmont City library. The library is one of the only places in the small Metro East village that has reliable internet speeds.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Collage of Fairmont City library. The library is one of the only places in the small Metro East village that has reliable internet speeds.

The folks of Fairmont City, Illinois didn’t realize how much they needed a library until they’d gotten one. It took some convincing. In the early 2000’s there was no library in Fairmont City. When there was a proposal to open one, it was met with resistance and concern from the community. After all, libraries are funded by local people through local taxes, nonprofit and for-profit grants and individual donations.

Thank goodness for Katie Heaton! She knew a good librarian puts their ear down, listens and really pays attention to the needs of their patrons. “You can hear the heartbeat of the community and when you hear that heartbeat, you can figure out what the needs are”, Katie says. Her goal was always to meet the needs of the people she served, whatever that need may be, from literacy to resources to broader partnerships and community services.

Katie Heaton started her career in library science in 1997 and is now the Assistant Director of the Mississippi Valley Library District, which includes the Collinsville and Fairmont City Library Centers. She’s been building community and using her gifts to help the rising Hispanic and Spanish speaking population in Fairmont City, Illinois. Fairmont City is 80% Hispanic and the Fairmont City Library Center is committed. They hire from the community. They speak and provide services in the language of the community.

Only 10 miles from St. Louis, Fairmont City is home for a small population of 2,381 with an average annual household income of around $50k according to 2020 census data. Why would this small migrant town, with a poverty rate of 26.98% want to pay for something they’ve never had nor anticipated they’d really need? After all, when it came down to things of priority for this community, especially during the pandemic, a library did not top their list. Service providers and aid organizations reported food as first, then utility, rent, funeral assistance and mortgage assistance in that order. One bill that families consistently paid for, sometimes before they’d buy food was the phone bill. During COVID their smart-phones, tablets, computers, smart-TVs and streaming services were their connection to their jobs, teachers and medical providers.

Throughout the pandemic, when everything was heavily reliant on Internet and Wi-Fi, Fairmont City residents struggled to connect. In order to attend classes, attend meetings, access healthcare or telehealth, to work or even to catch the latest Netflix season of their favorite shows; they needed reliable and affordable internet that wasn’t available. Many families only had a handheld device, usually a telephone, and would need to take it with them to work. If the device stayed at home and there were several children, how would they share that single device? The library learned that students didn't have computers at home. They weren't attending their online classes. Katie began what took an advocacy and 8-year pursuit to obtain affordable and reliable internet. Eventually, they got it! And when they had to be closed and all they could offer the community was free Wi-Fi service outside of the building, they kept offering services.

Some Fairmont City families had challenges with credit scores, filing taxes and social security. Many were not using banking systems. People were losing percentages of their paychecks to predatory lenders and check cashing services. The library listened and responded with financial literacy through a partnership with a bank. Katie has secured partnerships with other organizations and the community in Fairmont City is advancing and meeting goals.

Fairmont City probably couldn’t imagine life without their library now and Katie is still excited to rise to the challenge every day. Libraries are gateways to knowledge and culture. They play a fundamental role in society. They are a place for personal growth and reinvention as well as a place for help to navigate this world in the information age. Libraries are a gathering place for civic and cultural engagement and a trusted place for preserving culture. For Katie Heaton and her Fairmont City library patrons, it is so much more.

Need a boost to your ideas around positive community change and personal impact? This episode with Katie Heaton is a great place to start.

Things to know in this episode:
Fairmont City Library Center
4444 Collinsville Road
Fairmont City, IL 62201
Learn more at https://mvld.org/fairmont_info

Fairmont City
City Hall Annex
2568 N 41st St, Ste C
Fairmont City, Illinois 62201
(618) 274-6306
Learn more at fairmontcityil.com

Mississippi Valley Library District
Learn more at mvld.org
For all inquires, contact: kylaw@mvld.org

Michael Suarez
(618) 274-6306

The Latino Roundtable Southwestern Illinois
The Latino Roundtable Southwestern Illinois is a group of community organizations, businesses, colleges, universities and agencies unified in purpose to develop and expand resources of social services to the Latino community in St. Louis Metro East area.
(618) 482-3966

The Hispanic Star
The Hispanic Star is a platform to advance Hispanics in the U.S.
Email: info@hispanicstar.org
Learn more at hispanicstar.org

PCs for People
PCs for People is a national nonprofit social enterprise working to get low-cost quality computers and internet into the homes of individuals, families, and nonprofits with low income. By recycling and then refurbishing computers, PCs for People provides a valuable service to businesses, families, and the planet by keeping computers out of landfills and repurposing them to advance digital inclusion.
Address:  100 Florida Ave., Belleville, IL 62221
Phone:  618-215-3787
Email:  belleville@pcsforpeople.com
Learn more at pcsforpeople.org

Alejandro Santiago Ortega is a foreign attorney and community advocate. He also volunteers for several organizations in the St. Louis region, looking to create meaningful change in the community. Alejandro is committed to improving the quality of life for all in the region.
Before creating the We Live Here Auténtico Podcast, Gabriela worked as an educator, diplomat, community advocate, business counselor, restaurant owner, marathon runner, author, co-founder and small business owner.
Jade Harrell has been part of the programming team since October 2018 as an announcer on weeknights and weekends. She is now Director of On-Demand & Content Partnerships and a member of the Executive Leadership Team.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.