2015 I Love My Librarian Award Winner Dona Helmer: School Librarian and School Leader

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By Steve Zalusky

Dona Helmer is a school librarian who realizes that what happens at her library influences the world beyond it.

Tamara Ramsey, a teacher at College Gate Elementary school in Anchorage, Alaska, who nominated Helmer, school librarian, for the 2015 I Love My Librarian Award, said, “Dona feels that libraries and learning are for life. She works hard to help all our students understand that everything can be enhanced by going to the library for help. The library is larger than just a room.”

Helmer has worked with second-grade teachers on a Farm to School program. The second graders learn how to find recipes and nutritional information on the Internet. They also take field trips to the Alaska Botanical Garden and receive instruction from guests about plants and soil, as well as learn about Alaskan home grown vegetables.

The program also sharpens their cooking skills, with the second-grade chefs receiving a crock pot so they can practice at home with their families.  Ramsey said, “The program is awesome and Dona does the bulk of the work—she finds the grants, organizes the bus, finds the speakers and gets the crockpots and vegetables.”

Ramsey said Helmer is an integral part of the educational team at Golden Gate, saying that one sixth-grade teacher said Helmer is more than the school librarian – “she is a curriculum innovator.”

She said, “She is an instructional coach, a helpmate and cheerleader for information and books. Whenever we need help, Dona is there to make a phone call, write a grant, and find that special book or website we need.”

She wrote two Art Excursion grants that enabled second-grade students to see live theater.

“Many of our students could not afford to go on field trips without her help,” Ramsey said. “Students learn about the history of theater, acting, storytelling. They also learn how to write letters and press releases to funding agents.” She also helped write a grant that provided additional materials for a robotics club.

Helmer is a fountain of information about links and websites that can generate excitement in the classroom.  Ramsey said she even attracted a crew from a local television station when Helmer came into the classroom to work on a writing project about Thanksgiving.

But although Helmer offers invaluable help in the area of online materials, books are a major part of her life. That is reflected in her devotion to writing grants to put books in the hands of her students. In the past three years, she wrote around 150 grants and mentored and coached other teachers to write grants for their classrooms. This is important, considering that nearly 70 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Helmer meets the needs of the community in other ways. She runs the Turkey Trot and the Jingle Jog to provide holiday dinners to 20 needy College Gate Families, supplying nearly all the money for the meals.

She also spreads awareness of such social challenges as homelessness, conducting a unit on the issue and having students study the problem and discuss solutions. For the past seven years, students spent November making 60 fleece blankets for the Brother Francis Shelter – Helmer buys the fabric.

In addition, she buys and hands out mittens each year to needy children at the school and runs a library club and a library store where children can earn “Dewey Dollars” to buy supplies they cannot afford.

Helmer leads by example, Ramsey said, going “out of her way to show students that the world of information is larger than four walls—the entire world is their library.

“She tells students that being in the College Gate Library is preparation for the real world—they need to learn the rules and they need to learn about information. They need to learn to question and find answers to those questions. They need to explore. The library is not a place but a state of mind—it is not confined by four walls. Dona is trying to help every student become an independent member of a global community. She wants them to become independent lifelong readers and users of information.”

The importance of literacy is stressed with the school’s “Read for the Record.” In February, the school celebrates African American Read in Month. And March is Read to Some Bunny Month, with children taking stuffed bunnies home with them so they can read to them.

Students respond enthusiastically, Ramsey said. “As one of my second grade students said, ‘She is Awesome! I want to be a librarian just like her when I grow up!’”

Helmer is active within the library community as well, serving as a member of committees for the Newbery and Caldecott awards, which are given each year by the American Library Association as part of the Youth Media Awards. She has served on the IRA book and poetry award committees and the NCSS Carter G. Woodson history book award committee. She is also a member of the Alaska Library Association.

Helmer, who has also earned the 2013 Alaska School Librarian of the Year, when asked in an interview what the most rewarding part of her job is, said, “Being able to work in a profession that I love, feeling that every day I’m making a difference in kids’ lives and also being involved in information, information literacy, also being able to say to children, ‘There are recreational things that you can do in libraries and those libraries belong to you.’’

When asked about receiving the 2015 I Love My Librarian Award, she said, “Having someone say thank you and recognizing the fact that librarians are so very important in today’s world means a great deal to me.”

Learn more about the I Love My Librarian Award and the other 2015 winners. Nominations are open through September 19 for the 2016 I Love My Librarian Awards.

Dona J. Helmer on winning a 2015 I Love My Librarian Award