Zheni Velasquez was born in Ecuador and immigrated to the United States in 1991. She spoke little English and tried to enroll in local schools, but could not afford a bilingual dictionary. That's when she found the 's bilingual resources that helped her start her new life.
On Friday, Velasquez met Michelle Obama and toured the White House with Patchogue-Medford Library Director Dina McNeece Chrils and Library Board President Patricia Seubert, who were all invited to Washington, D.C. to receive the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Science and $10,000 for the Patchogue-Medford Library. This honor was bestowed for the library's work in bilingual programming for a population that is 24 percent Hispanic. Chrils said that Velasquez was invited as the Institute of Museum and Library Science (IMLS) asked that each recipient of the award bring someone who exemplified why the library was chosen.
"She took our conversational and citizenship classes and had gone through our spanish outreach program," Chris said.
Only five libraries and five museums in the nation received this year's award and $10,000 each. As previously reported, Chrils said that the money would be used to continue to fund their bilingual programs.
"We are so lucky to have the program and to have the library. The library is my second home," Velasquez said. Chrils said that Michelle Obama congratulated Velasquez on becoming a citizen. "She told me to keep doing what I'm doing," Velasquez said about talking to the first lady.
Chrils hopes that this award will bring more attention to the library in the struggling economy.
"We work day in and day out on these programs, and so for somebody to take notice, especially on a national level, it means a lot," Chrils said. "It will call attention to the work we're doing, and hopefully give us a push for grants and for potential new donors."
"The award is to recognize and honor the work of five museums and five libraries that are making a difference in the community," Gina White, a spokesperson for IMLS, said when .
"After the tragedy [in 2008], we were the bridge connecting the Latino and Anglo communities. People came here to grieve and talk, and it became a neutral place where the healing process could begin," Chrils said.
Chrils was referring to the 2008 stabbing of Marcelo Lucero, 37, that brought national attention to Patchogue-Medford. The seven teenagers involved in the attack have all since been , with one serving 25 years in prison for the racially charged murder.
At the ceremony the first lady offered some brief remarks and shook hands with each community member and director, including Velasquez and Chrils.
"Your most power lies in impacting your local communities, especially during times of hardship," Michelle Obama said. "There are so many stories there, and they're not all on the shelves. What you each do isn't about the books; it's about the people that walk through."
Velasquez now serves as a teacher's aide at Family Service League and .
"I want to keep improving my education so that I can get an even better job, and I know the library will continue to be a great resource for that," Velasquez said.