Li­brary em­barks on coun­try’s first public liv­ing room

Space to be a source of com­fort for all in need

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By SARA NEW­MAN snew­man@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @in­dy_­com­mu­nity

A plush, flo­ral fab­ric love seat sits at the Charles County Public Li­brary’s La Plata branch, beck­on­ing guests to re­lax and un­wind. As part of a larger mis­sion, the fur­ni­ture is a step for the li­brary to be­gin some­thing first of its kind in the coun­try: the public liv­ing room.

The public liv­ing room was cre­ated by Maff Potts, the di­rec­tor of a U.K.based non­profit called Cam­er­a­dos. After work­ing with the home­less for 22 years, Potts said he re­al­ized there were two fac­tors peo­ple needed, be­sides hous­ing and money, to trans­form their lives: friends and purpose. He sought to cre­ate a space that would fos­ter those con­nec­tions.

“I was run­ning the big­gest home­less provider in the U.K. and a tele­vi­sion re­porter asked me what I was do­ing for peo­ple who had lost ev­ery­thing in the eco­nomic crash,” Potts wrote in an email from a taxi while vis­it­ing the U.S. “I re­al­ized in that mo­ment that I was do­ing noth­ing be­cause I couldn’t help peo­ple un­til they had lost ev­ery­thing, gained an ad­dic­tion, had a crim­i­nal record or per­haps had a men­tal health prob­lem.”

The idea spread and now the U.K. boasts four public liv­ing rooms — in Black­pool, Cam­den, Ox­ford and Sh­effield — and one opened weekly in Brook­lyn. Charles County aims to house the first per­ma­nent public liv­ing room in the coun­try.

“When a per­son is iso­lated, for what­ever rea­son, he or she may not be able to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties around them,” said Janet Salazar, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Charles County Public Li­brary. “The li­brary is here to help by of­fer­ing a com­fort­able place to sit, a small project to work on, a cup of cof­fee or tea, and most im­por­tant of all, a friendly face.”

A liv­ing room is cur­rently set up at the La Plata branch on Gar­rett Av­enue and if the idea takes off, there is a pos­si­bil­ity for more to be added to other branches in the county.

Thanks to a do­nated couch and Keurig ma­chine, the space is on its way to look­ing like a cozy and com­fort­able room found in a home. Tisha Tyler, mar­ket­ing and de­vel­op­ment man­ager for Charles County Public Li­brary, said more do­na­tions are still needed such as an­other couch, some com­fort­able chairs, an area rug, end ta­bles, puz­zles or games as well as mugs, cof­fee and creamer to com­ple­ment the Keurig.

Tyler said she has seen an in­crease in peo­ple com­ing through the li­brary’s doors and dis­cov­er­ing what they have to of­fer. The de­sire to have a com­mu­nity cen­ter and re­source is there, she said, and the li­brary is open to ev­ery­one.

With the La Plata branch sit­ting ad­ja­cent to the Univer­sity of Mar yland Charles Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter, the space can of­fer so­lace to any­one seek­ing refuge from pos­si­ble bad news.

“We have peo­ple come into the li­brary who have loved ones at the hospi­tal and the liv­ing room can be a com­fort­able place for them to wait for and process news, good or bad,” said Lloyd Jansen, La Plata branch man­ager. “We thought those peo­ple may be go­ing through a dif­fi­cult time with loved ones in the hospi­tal and hav­ing a place for them to re­lax and col­lect their thoughts may be a good thing. But it’s also for any­one who’s feel­ing iso­lated for any rea­son and wants a quiet place they can just be or in­ter­act with oth­ers who may be in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.”

Al Le­an­dre, a board mem­ber for the youth-based non­profit STEAM On­ward, and Bonita Adeeb, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, used the space this week to meet with their Young Re­searchers Com­mu­nity Project group.

“It’s a wel­com­ing and invit­ing space,” Adeeb said of the liv­ing room.

“It au­to­mat­i­cally gives the li­brary a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. You grav­i­tate to­wards it. Li­braries, in gen­eral to me, are built to al­low peo­ple to con­nect. This is a com­fort­able space you can just melt into and talk and share with oth­ers,” Le­an­dre said.

“We have so many sto­ries of very vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple com­ing in and find­ing con­fi­dence from the very sim­ple fact that no­body was try­ing to fix them but in­stead just give them some good com­pany, play a board game or drink tea with [them],” Potts said of the space. “One woman who had been badly beaten by her hus­band came in one of our liv­ing rooms very up­set. We gave her a cup of tea and asked her to talk to an old man who was very lonely that day. Within a short time they were laugh­ing and by the end of the day she was run­ning the liv­ing room.”

See­ing his idea spread to other coun­tries makes Potts feel “very in­spired,” he said, adding that he is meet­ing some­one in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia next month to talk about the project and has re­ceived in­quiries from around the globe.

“I have al­ways found Amer­i­cans to be cu­ri­ous and more pos­i­tive about new ideas. Janet Salazar at Charles County Li­brary epit­o­mizes that,” Potts wrote.

“I truly feel that public li­braries ex­ist to serve their com­mu­ni­ties and that we help peo­ple ev­ery day,” Salazar said of the li­brary’s mis­sion. “I don’t know that the public re­ally un­der­stand that that’s what we do. We’re here to help you and we’re here to con­nect you to what you need.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF TISHA TYLER

Bonita Adeeb and Carmella Watkins of STEAM On­ward used the public liv­ing room space this week at the La Plata li­brary to meet oth­ers.

STAFF PHO­TOS BY SARA NEW­MAN

The La Plata branch of the Charles County Li­brary has be­gun the first per­ma­nent public liv­ing room project in the coun­try. The idea be­gan in the U.K. and is spread­ing across the world as a place for those in need of a peace­ful space.

The public liv­ing room space at the La Plata li­brary fea­tures a do­nated couch, table and chairs, plants and ac­tiv­ity pages for peo­ple to take their mind off their trou­bles.

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