PEEKSKILL, N.Y. -- Growing up in the Bronx, Tanya Soto discovered a love for learning at her local library. Now, she’s helping children, non-English speaking residents and people of all ages find the same passion at The Field Library in Peekskill.
Soto works as a clerk in the children’s department at the library and Spanish Outreach Coordinator, and leads an English Second Language conversation group. “Working in a library has always been a dream for me,’’ said Soto, who has worked at The Field Library for 15 years. “This is the town where I raised my children. I like to connect with neighbors, and I like to let people know what’s going on. It’s very rewarding and satisfying.”
Soto’s passion for helping people stems from her upbringing. Soto found classroom learning challenging, and directed her own learning by visiting the library. “I spent a lot of time out of school,’’ Soto said. “I was playing hooky to go to the library. I was finding answers to questions that no one wanted to answer. I had questions that made adults uncomfortable. In the library, I found out I could get the information that I needed on my own.”
Soto shares her passion for library learning with everyone, particularly young readers. “I love how you can put a book in a child’s hands,’’ she said, “and open up a whole new world.”
She’s opening a whole new world for people who want to learn English, too. The English conversation group she leads lasts eight weeks. The free class meets two nights each week, and sessions are scheduled several times during the year.
“We try to help people with resumes, mothers who have to go to school to speak with teachers about their children, and anyone who wants help getting started,’’ Soto said. “Tutors work with people on a 1-on-1 basis. It’s a great service for people who are coming into the community and don’t know what their resources are.”
Soto’s first language is English, and while she did not learn Spanish in school, she picked it up working at the library. People learn about the program mostly through word-of-mouth. Soto, who is of Puerto Rican descent, says that during each session, she finds non-English speaking residents gradually break down language barriers with the help of volunteer tutors.
“When we start that first class, people are completely engrossed,’’ she said. “They’re so appreciative. What I love is dealing with so many different cultures, and all the little intricacies. Sometimes, it gets hard, and I think to myself I’d like to be home. But when you see the effort these people make, that’s what shines through. That’s when you realize you don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Soto credits the program's volunteer tutors for making the program possible. "They are so dedicated and I wouldn't be able to continue our English group or our one-on-one tutoring without them,'' she said. "They truly are the heart and soul of the program."
Soto sees progress on the faces of the non-English speaking citizens when they start to comprehend the language. “When they start out, there’s a blank look and they just nod their head,’’ she said. “They’re afraid to interact. Once the light bulb goes off, it brightens up their whole face. Their eyes are different. The way they engage is different. They realize they can do this, and it’s not going to be terrible.”
She finds personal reward in the program, and the students begin to feel like family. “We tell them we’re going to be your family for eight weeks,’’ she said. “It’s great seeing them connect. They help each other in a lot of ways, and they’re networking without even realizing they’re connecting.”
Children also find Soto’s enthusiasm infectious. The Field Library has developed a wide range of children’s activities, everything from author visits to llamas to story hours, and that’s just within the past month. Soto helps children get the most out of the experiences. “We build strong relationships with them,’’ she said. “One patron said it doesn’t feel like we’re going to the library. It feels like we’re going to an aunt’s house. It’s the efforts of all of us. When the kids get excited, they bring the parents with them.”
Soto knows the path she followed was not a direct route. But she found her passion, sustains it and shares it with her community. For her, there is no greater reward.
“I am proud to work at the library,’’ she said. “I feel very fortunate to do what I want to be doing. I didn’t take the same path, but I’m very proud of what I do every day. I hope I’m here for a lot longer.”