By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
Story hours and homework help are changing at Jacksonville public libraries thanks to the work of Susan Mankowski. An early childhood specialist with the Jacksonville Public Library, Mankowski’s work has brought new understanding and access to library resources to hundreds of parents across the city.
“I think the library has been an untapped resource for early learning and early literacy,” Mankowski said.
With her strong background in early childhood development and the early childhood community, Mankowski began to train library employees in the needs of young children. She adapted library policies to be more developmentally appropriate – reflective of best practices – and better suited to meet the needs of all children walking through the doors, especially the younger ones.
Mankowski also added an early childhood resource page to the Jacksonville Public Library webpage, complete with demonstrations of songs and finger plays so parents and children could learn them together.
“I saw the need and started undertaking staff trainings and other trainings,” she said. “If you’re going to invest in anything, you have to know the why behind it. That’s why the training is so important.”
The impact Mankowski’s work has had on the Jacksonville Public Library system and the early-childhood community is why she is one of two United Way of Northeast Florida Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion award winners this year.
The awards, which honor longtime United Way philanthropist Sherwood H. Smith, recognize two community individuals annually, one in service and one in advocacy. Mankowski was nominated for and won the advocacy category. The Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion awards are made possible by a legacy endowment gift from his son, Sherwood H. Smith, Jr. and family.
Mankowski spends hours training community members, teachers and parents in early literacy and early childhood development.
“I started out in elementary education,” Mankowski said. “But as time went on, I gravitated toward younger and younger. If we really want to have an impact, we have to start with the babies.”
Mankowski knows first-hand the impact that early intervention can have on a child’s progress.
“I used to cut coupons for my mom,” Mankowski said. “Years later, she told me that it was because I needed the practice cutting.”
Her mom, a special-needs teacher, recognized Mankowski needed the extra practice developing fine motor skills that would help her learn to write and focus and, by giving her something to do that helped her family, it would boost her self-esteem.
Mankowski’s parents also surrounded her with an expectation of giving back through their church and community activities.
“If we were giving Christmas presents out to other children, we went as a family,” Mankowski said. “My mom taught theater classes, and if a child needed scholarship help, she found a way to do it.”
She grew up expecting to find ways to make the community work better for children and has found that niche through the Jacksonville Public Library.
“I think the best moments for me are when I hear staff say, ‘This is why we do it,’” Mankowski said. “It isn’t that we didn’t have story time before. It’s that now staff have the words to use when they talk to parents and tell them the reasons why we do what we do.”
For more information on United Way of Northeast Florida and its annual Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champions Awards, visit unitedwaynefl.org/sherwood-smith-awards.