All Together Now! Summer Reading at Johnson County Library begins June 1 and the fun continues until July 29.
The Johnson County Library Foundation’s new executive director brings a wealth of fundraising and advocacy experience to the job. She also brings qualities that may be even more important: a boundless curiosity and a deep appreciation for libraries as part of the soul of a community.
Shelley O’Brien started her new job March 6, succeeding Stephanie Stollsteimer, who retired. In her previous position as a fundraising consultant for the Northeast Kansas Library System, O’Brien championed libraries in this region and had already worked closely with Stollsteimer and board members as a facilitator to update the Foundation’s strategic plan.
So O’Brien was familiar with how vibrant the Foundation already is, in its mission to help Johnson County Library build its collection, lifelong learning resources and programming beyond what taxpayer dollars provide. Her goal is to raise the Foundation’s profile even higher and to forge even greater partnerships throughout the community.
“The Library and Foundation are excellent, and I want to build on that and bring more people into the fold,” she said. “We want to communicate more with the donors who support the Foundation about how we are investing their money. That to me is very important, showing the impact it has on Johnson County.”
Growing up in Blue Springs, O’Brien loved going to her local library and became a voracious reader. She enjoyed public speaking on the debate team in high school and at the University of Kansas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in communication studies.
After college she worked for the KU endowment and other organizations in Lawrence and Kansas City before she moved to Washington D.C. In the nation’s capital, she did fundraising for national advocacy non-profits, including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Recreation and Park Association.
While in Washington, O’Brien was an enthusiastic library volunteer through the Junior League, and that helped launch her on a new career path. In 2018, she became the first fundraiser on the Prince George’s County Memorial Library system staff. At night and on weekends, she pursued a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University, graduating in December 2021.
After years in Washington, O’Brien craved a return to the Kansas City area, so she was glad to accept the Northeast Kansas Library position in October 2021.
Now at the Foundation, O’Brien is working on its signature event, Library Lets Loose, scheduled for September 23. O’Brien and the development department have many other ideas for the Foundation, including highlighting volunteer opportunities and expanding philanthropic and corporate connections.
O’Brien also values how different libraries can work together for mutual benefit. To that end, she has a website, I Love My Kansas Library, that promotes library impacts on local economies throughout the state.
O’Brien also loves sports. She served on the U.S. Olympics nominating committee for eight years and is always up for attending a sporting event.
“I am not an athlete but I value sports and teamwork,” she said. “I learned so much about the importance of strong leadership and working together.”
She’s a big fan of the Royals, Chiefs and the Kansas City Current women’s soccer team. “I am grateful that the Royals Charities support the Library Foundation and our children’s programs,” she said. “I hope we can work with all the KC sports teams in some way.”
The new job seems full of possibilities. “I want Johnson County to have outstanding Libraries, where we see innovation taking place every day. That is thrilling to me,” O’Brien said. “I can see where parents would be so excited that their children and teenagers are getting to experience this. That fuels my work. That fuels me.”
Johnson County Library will soon be rolling out distinctive portraits of its County Librarians who have served since the 1950s. The artist is a recent arrival to the United States, and her work with the Library is in itself a story about the blessings of immigrant vitality, volunteerism and community connection.
Katya Balakina grew up in Russia and until recently lived in Estonia, where she pursued a career as an illustrator. It was there that she met her husband, a Johnson County native, and the couple moved to Leawood in early 2022.
Balakina didn’t know anyone in America except her husband’s family and was feeling isolated. But she knew that Libraries in Eastern Europe were great community hubs, and her husband encouraged her to visit the Leawood Pioneer branch.
She quickly got a Library card and went online to check out Johnson County Library volunteer opportunities, which connected her to the Friends of Johnson County Library. Thus began a wonderful relationship that has been mutually beneficial for both the Library and Balakina.
Community Relations Coordinator Christopher Leitch, who works closely with the Friends organization, attended an online meeting with Balakina and learned about her illustrator skills. He checked out her website and quickly recognized her talent. She produces hand-drawn digital images on an iPad, visually conveying ideas and information with a very creative, appealing technique.
“I knew her style,” Leitch said. “It’s very lively and fun and bright and bold.”
Leitch envisioned how Balakina’s whimsical drawings could focus attention on the Friends’ donation boxes, located in the branches to collect used books and other materials.
“She produced a series of little illustrations we’ve been using on social media,” Leitch said. “They’re little line drawings and are just adorable.”
Balakina was delighted to volunteer for the project. “It was super fun for me,” she said. “I felt like it was the perfect match.”
She told Leitch that she loves doing portraits and was available for more assignments.
About that time, Sean Casserley retired as County Librarian, succeeded by Tricia Suellentrop. The timing was right to begin celebrating the history of all seven County Librarians, dating back to Shirley Brother in 1956, followed by Mary Moore, Roy Fox, Mona Carmack and Donna Lauffer. Leitch conceived that a cohesive set of all seven portraits would be ideal. The Library commissioned the works and Balakina completed them late last year.
Leitch said the Library was thrilled and felt Balakina had captured the look and distinguishing characteristics of each Librarian.
“I would say she is a very imaginative and intelligent person and really easy to work with,” Leitch said. “She was so eager to bring our vision to life.”
The images will appear on a variety of postcards, prints and other materials, helping to honor the Library’s leaders.
Connecting with the Library has been a joy, Balakina said. In addition, at her first meeting with Friends of Johnson County Library representatives, she met another volunteer who was also a recent arrival to the U.S. They’ve become great friends.
“I got a friend from the Friends,” Balakina said with a laugh. “We hit it off. I am very thankful to the Friends for that volunteering opportunity and for the fact I met a like-minded person.”
Leitch said this is just one example of how Johnson County Library is blessed to be in a place with so many accomplished professionals, of so many nationalities, who share their gifts for the community’s benefit.
“We are really lucky,” Leitch said. “This kind of talent presents itself to us with such regularity.”
We’ve been publishing Volume, a literary and arts notebook, for six years! Each Volume has plenty of room to scribble and doodle, plus beautiful artwork and writing from YOU, our patrons!
Our prompt for Volume 6
Whether it be fishing for compliments, fishers of men, or actual fishing for fish, tell us about the ways you cast your net, what you’re hoping to catch and the surprises along the way. Learn more and submit your writing or art »
Many of Johnson County Library’s writing programs have been supported by the Joan Berkley Writers Fund, which is administered by the Johnson County Library Foundation. The Berkley family started the fund to honor Joan Berkley, who was an avid reader and lover of literature. Bert Berkley has supported the fund since its inception in 2013 and we thought it would be fun to honor Bert along with Joan with a prompt all about his favorite thing: fishing. Need inspiration? Read about Bert’s passion for fly-fishing in “Anglers Journal” »
Johnson County Library has received a prestigious national certification for best practices in volunteer management, following a rigorous process that helped make its excellent volunteer program even better.
In late 2022, the Library’s volunteer program became Service Enterprise Certified by the Points of Light Foundation and ALIVE (Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement). Only 11 percent of nonprofits nationally achieve this certification, which focuses on 10 key areas of successful volunteer management.
“At the end of the day, I think this provides a better experience for the volunteers, and I think it’s also about opening up our mindset to how we can utilize volunteers,” said Volunteer Services Coordinator Amber Bourek Slater. “I think about some of the new ways we are engaging volunteers.”
County Librarian Patricia Suellentrop said the certification timing was ideal.
“Our organization is redefining staff roles and updating goals for our next strategic plan,” Suellentrop said. “Service Enterprise is helping us see how skilled volunteers can support staff to serve our community in new ways.”
In summer 2021, Johnson County Library was selected for the program through the Kansas Volunteer Commission. Bourek Slater participated in four months of training, joined by staffers Thomas Parks, Matt Hammes and Matt Morgan, who work with volunteers at various branches. The Library received coaching from Meg Pearson of the Kansas Volunteer Commission, to develop and implement an extensive volunteer program improvement plan.
The results are already evident. The number of volunteers grew from 581 in 2021 to 790 in 2022 and the return on volunteer investment grew from $3.78 to $6.68 for every dollar invested in the volunteer program.
“Our coach was ecstatic at how much the return on investment had increased,” Bourek Slater noted.
The Library retained 107 volunteers from before COVID in March 2020. Many dedicated individuals have been with the organization for years. Teen outreach also grew to the point where 54% of volunteers are young people.
Through the certification process, the Library improved its annual volunteer survey, created a detailed volunteer handbook, enhanced outreach in the branches with an informational brochure and developed new volunteer opportunities.
Bourek Slater said the survey showed strong volunteer satisfaction. It also revealed the diversity of volunteer skills. For example, one person shared that he has voice-over experience, so he’ll narrate a new volunteer training video.
Parks, the volunteer liaison at the Leawood branch, said the certification training was helpful.
“Leawood is a very busy location and volunteers help complement what we are doing,” he said, adding that many volunteers are retirees who find great purpose in working at the Library.
“When you are engaged with volunteers,” Parks said, “you get to see other perspectives and skills that volunteers bring to the Library. They bring enjoyment to the staff and other volunteers.”
Bourek Slater said a few other Library systems nationwide have achieved this certification, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Boulder, Colorado. They have been a great resource in sharing the benefits of this work.
The certification process helped identify the volunteer program’s strengths and areas needing improvement. Strengths include a database that allows the Library to recruit people and track volunteer hours. One area needing improvement was communication with the Library’s administrative leadership and Board, which is already happening.
It all amounted to many small changes making a big difference for volunteers and the Library alike, Bourek Slater observed.
“For the volunteers who are here,” she said, “if we’re engaging and we’re listening and we’re making this a meaningful experience for them that they want to be a part of, that’s great.”
As a kindergartner in 1999, Mary Clow won Johnson County Library’s bookmark design contest for her age group, with the message “I like the Library.”
Now married and mom to 1-year-old Isabella, Clow is having a wonderful time introducing her daughter to Johnson County Library.
“More than 20 years later, I love getting to share the Library with my own daughter,” Clow wrote in an email to Library staff. “Isabella is a huge fan of our weekly trips to the Library and loves getting to pick books from the shelves herself. Thank you for all you do, and for sharing books with my family for over two decades.”
That’s just the kind of communication from patrons that warms Librarians’ hearts.
Clow grew up in Overland Park and Lenexa, where her mother took her and her sibling regularly on weekends to the Central or Oak Park branches.
“We checked out books and movies,” Clow recalled. “Pretty early on, mom had to implement the rule that we could only check out as many books as we could carry. My favorite book as a kid was The Big Red Barn.”
As an adult, she’s now enjoying reading that classic by Margaret Wise Brown to her daughter.
She doesn’t have a vivid memory of creating the winning bookmark but knows her mother sought out those types of fun Library activities that she could do at home. She remembers there was a reception for the winners. She now flexes her creative muscles with cross-stitching and other crafts.
Clow became an avid reader and remains a fan of young adult fiction, especially books by John Green and Maureen Johnson. She graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School and got a degree in elementary education from Pittsburg State University.
Even during college, Clow stayed connected to Johnson County Library during summers. She was a nanny one summer for a family with four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and six months.
“The Library programs were great for them, just finding free stuff to do,” she recalled. She took the youngest to Storytimes while the older children found books and enrichment. The family lived closest to the Leawood branch, but Clow said they checked the calendar for different programs and visited a number of branches.
“There were MakerSpace activities that the older kids really liked,” she said. “It was really great to have stuff for that whole range of ages. I also did the summer reading program with them.”
After college graduation she worked as a substitute teacher for several Johnson County school districts before she was hired as a math teacher at Westridge Middle School in Overland Park.
She taught math for a year but realized it wasn’t the best fit. Since 2017, she’s worked as the director of children’s ministries for Lenexa United Methodist Church, and that’s been very fulfilling.
She and her husband Nicholas, a civil engineer at Black and Veatch, live in Shawnee, where they frequent the Shawnee Library branch. They regularly use the Library app and often put books on hold.
Isabella is just getting to the age where she is aware of books being read to her, and Clow looks forward to helping her learn to appreciate books and reading.
“I was definitely raised going to the Library,” Clow says, adding that it’s gratifying to see that tradition extend to a new generation.
And who knows? Maybe in a few years, Isabella will follow mom’s example and also enter the bookmark contest with her own creative design.
Books and libraries have always been a big part of my life. I remember being 5 or 6 years old and reading Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss all the way through by myself. I have a vivid memory of the joy and empowerment I felt in that moment… I’m a reader! It was a first step in my lifelong love affair with books and reading.
My grandmother was a church librarian in Hesston, KS. My sister and I loved to hang out with her and browse the library shelves, on Sundays during our summer vacations. My grandparents and my parents were big readers. Their love of reading and books was instilled in me, a legacy my husband Gary and I passed to our children and now to our grandchildren.
The Library has played an important role in my professional life. I do research for clients, and Library study rooms are a perfect landing place between meetings or for a virtual call.
As a past Foundation Board member and continuing member of the Fund Development Committee, my passionate belief is that libraries are invaluable in our community. Books and access to information are essential. I take a great deal of pride and satisfaction in having helped, over the years, to establish the Foundation’s planned giving initiative, The 1952 Society: Writing the Library’s Next Chapter, and the Readers Circle (donors who have given $10,000 or more.) I’ve had a lot of fun helping with Foundation events including Rare Conversations, the Pinnacle Awards, and now Library Lets Loose. It is more important than ever to ensure our Library’s success in benefitting future generations. That’s why the Library is, and will continue to be, one of my personal philanthropic priorities.
— Lynne Brown
Leila Gallagher and her family have been avid Johnson County Library patrons for years, often visiting Lackman and now the Lenexa City Center branch.
When her son Joey was diagnosed with a rare brain disease six years ago, the Library became an even more important source of normalcy, comfort, fun and knowledge. Gallagher became especially aware of how the Johnson County Library Foundation supports programming that serves the entire community.
The Foundation is the fundraising non-profit that helps the Library build its collection and resources, beyond what tax dollars provide. Its annual year-end appeal is underway, with the theme “Your gift makes magic happen.”
“The Library has been a godsend,” says Gallagher, who has volunteered with the Foundation’s Library Lets Loose gala and whose family also makes charitable donations to this worthy cause.
“It’s such an important aspect of our lives,” Gallagher said of both the Library and the Foundation. “It makes us feel good to be able to do something outside of ourselves. And we know that impact is so profound, how many branches they are able to serve with that money.”
Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Stollsteimer said about 1,500 appeals have been mailed to regular donors, inviting them to make a year-end contribution.
“Year-end giving is a tried and true tradition,” Stollsteimer said. “It’s the giving season, when not-for-profits and donors connect.”
Every dollar helps, Stollsteimer said, to support the Library’s early literacy efforts, STEM education, online tutoring and civic engagement. Foundation funding also supports the Library’s hybrid online and in-person programming, which began during COVID and is thriving.
The Foundation’s Library Lets Loose event, held in-person Sept. 17 after two virtual years, was hugely successful, attracting 500 participants to the newly reopened Central Resource Library. Stollsteimer said she hopes this year-end appeal builds on that momentum.
This year’s theme embraces the feeling that many have: books are magic, and both adults and kids are looking for magic in their lives. Foundation supporters can help in that mission by mailing back their donor card or going online to jocolibraryfoundation.org/donate.
For Gallagher and her family, the Library has indeed brought magic to their lives. Leila and her husband Scott co-own the small business ePromotions, which markets promotional products, and Scott also works in sales. Their daughter Gia is 17, and Joey is now 10 years old.
Joey had a stroke and seizure six years ago and was diagnosed with moyamoya, a rare cerebrovascular disorder. He saw specialists at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital and had two brain surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital. His treatment is ongoing and he is doing well with his schooling, both at home and in the classroom.
Gallagher says the Lenexa branch provides a quiet refuge for her and her husband to get out of the house and work on their business. Gia loves talking to the Librarians and gets materials for AP English and other classes. For Joey, the Library is his happy place.
“It was a normal, safe place and a place that he knew didn’t feel like physical therapy or the doctor’s office,” Gallagher said. “It’s hilarious, we go about every two weeks. We get about 20 books.”
The family enjoys Lenexa’s beautiful interior, filled with colorful mosaics. “We really love the team there,” Gallagher added. “They are so friendly and welcoming.”
As someone experienced with public relations and non-profits, Gallagher realizes the Foundation’s great value. “It is so important to the community, literacy as a whole,” she said.
Stollsteimer said connections to families like the Gallaghers are what make the Foundation doubly worthwhile. “Library lovers are timeless,” she said. “They continue to support the Library.”
Friends of Johnson County Library want to sell you some used books!
Pop Up Sales:
Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.-5p.m. (closed for holidays, inclement weather closings announced on Facebook)
In the Pine Ridge Office Park
8279 Melrose Dr.
Lenexa, KS 66214,
The Friends of Johnson County Library want to assure you: the used book business is great.
The Friends started selling used books more than 30 years ago, and they are going strong still. Their 16k item (or more!) weekly inventory is restocked weekly and comes mostly from generous community donations, with the balance from books periodically weeded out of the Johnson County Library’s circulating collection. Friends’ net proceeds are paid into the Library's Collection budget, to help the Library buy new books. “We’re really proud of this success,” says Friends president Chris Meier. “Not only are we repurposing books in our community and giving them longer lives, we’re supporting our favorite public place: the Library!”
The Friends sell books in-person and online. They launched Pop Up Sales earlier this year at their donation processing headquarters in Lenexa. The Pop Ups are a sort-to-sell experience right at the source of the Friends broad and robust donated inventory. A corps of dedicated volunteers scan, examine and sort gifted materials for subject and quality. A lively Sale audience can generally be found at the door awaiting the weekly Saturday start time of 11:30 a.m.. Friends members receive a 20% discount on the already very reasonable prices. Gift cards are available, too!
The Pop Ups launch was a prelude to closing the two branch bookstores at Antioch and Blue Valley Libraries in July. After careful monitoring of sales activity at both stores, the Friends noted that sales continued to lag behind pre-pandemic levels. They made this bittersweet decision, after 26 years, so that the organization can focus resources toward their mission of supporting the Library.
Friends’ online sales are divided among international, national and local customers who peruse the broad selection on popular platforms like Amazon and Ebay, and on the Friends web site. Free shipping and the Friends reasonable prices are sure to wow. Top sellers tend to be first editions or hard-to-find items like out-of-print technical manuals. “The selection changes quickly,” says operations director Shanta Dickerson, “because we sell frequently and replace with new material that arrives every day.”
Growing up on the west side of Chicago – and in walking distance to a library nearby, Foundation board member Chris Anderson cannot remember a time when he didn’t go to the library.
“The library was always a safe place to go,” he recalled, and by age 11 he could walk there on his own to check out books, which provided a great sense of independence.
Chris’s wife, Lyn smiled broadly as she remembered her mom taking her to the library when she was a little girl to check out books. It quickly became her favorite place, and she has loved books ever since, noting that reading is her favorite pastime. Out of her siblings, she was definitely the bibliophile and still is. She affectionately refers to books now as “the beauty of the universe.”
As parents to two sons, it was part of their daily routine to read bedtime stories every evening. Their sons now read nightly to their kids continuing the tradition. Chris and Lyn share their love of libraries and reading with their grandchildren and noted their oldest granddaughter is in fourth grade has her very own library card. Lyn added that for people of all ages, library programs are key to engagement as they are centered around access and exploration. From early literacy storytimes to author visits and beyond, sharing information that is open to everyone is unique to libraries and a wonderful resource.
A fun shared experience Chris and Lyn have enjoyed for over 25 years is being part of a book group, where they have read many books they would otherwise not have been exposed to or read. Chris added that reading a variety of literature is the spice of life.
As a Foundation board member for many years, Chris believes the Library is a worthwhile organization to support on different levels. He remembered when he first came on board being amazed at the breadth of all the things the library offered, including online resources and programming for all ages. He added he believes that many of the Library’s programs are able to offer additional resources that exist due to extra funding provided by the Foundation.
Lyn shared her vision of the future of libraries to include more e-readers, a source for continued access to materials and programming for everyone, and a place in particular for students to access technology centered around gaining knowledge.
“Librarians are the most wonderful people on earth!” Lyn exclaimed. “They are always happy to help with anything — be it finding a book, research materials. and connecting people with the resources they are looking for!”