No Wrong Door at Waukegan Public Library

Liz Morris /

Commitment to equity of access is a driving force at Waukegan Public Library. With an uninsured population of nearly 72,000, this Lake County, IL library is deeply engaged in providing critical health information services to their patrons. Their Functional Health Literacy program began as many such programs do – with library leaders identifying barriers to access in their community, and working tirelessly to break those barriers down. Building off the success of this program, Waukegan Public Library is now one of 27 partner agencies working to coordinate enrollment support for the Affordable Care Act, so that there is no wrong door for any community member to access this support.

In 2013, the library started offering Functional Health Literacy Navigation classes to Hispanic and Latino patrons, a demographic that represents almost 54% of the Waukegan community. These classes are 4-week, bilingual instructional opportunities for patrons to develop key health literacy skills, such as how to identify and build trust with a healthcare provider, as well as personal preventative care and healthy lifestyle practices. Elizabeth Stearns, Waukegan Public Library’s Assistant Director, Community Services, realized that many Hispanic and Latino residents did not perceive the library as relevant to them, despite resources available for Spanish-speaking patrons. In collaboration with Carmen Patlan, Community Engagement and Outreach manager, they engaged several volunteers to go into the community and talk with residents to identify the barriers keeping them from accessing available resources, and to understand their needs. Through this, they learned that conversational English and fear of the complexity of broader public systems were keeping people away. By continuing to ask the question, "What can we do to help?" Waukegan Public Library identified Functional Health Literacy classes as the answer to many residents' needs. Now these classes operate at capacity, and engage an average of 25 adults and families in each 4-week session. Conversation ESL classes average 50 students on a weekly basis.

Sandy Sherwood helps six-year-old Kavon Young, with his mom Barbara Poole, with the computer at the Waukegan Public Library Wednesday, February 10, 2010. [Photo by Karen Kring]Of course, asking how to help is only a part of the equation. The ability to respond effectively to complex community needs requires commitment at all levels of a library organization. Library staff at Waukegan worked through the 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life readers' guide, and operate from the perspective that information access is a fundamental part of social justice and equity in their community.

The Waukegan Public Library sees the launch of the Affordable Care Act as another opportunity to proactively address community needs from an equal access perspective. The library is one of 27 partner organizations participating in Enroll Lake County, an initiative comprised of diverse community-based organizations, which seeks to increase access to healthcare for county residents. As part of this initiative, funded by the State of Illinois through a grant given to the Lake County Health Department, the library selected key staff members to receive training and certification to serve as qualified in-person counselors (IPCs). They plan to offer bilingual one-on-one and drop-in group sessions at the library, to help patrons determine their healthcare eligibility and enroll in affordable health insurance. Coordinated referral and data-sharing between partner organizations is intended to ensure that, regardless of where in the community individuals may go to receive enrollment support, they will have access to consistent and reliable information.

According to Richard Lee, the Waukegan Public Library Executive Director, "Knowing how to navigate the health care system is essential to our community, especially when almost 72,000 Lake County adults are uninsured. As a library, our mission is to ensure that our patrons have access to the information and resources that they need to be successful. When access to health care is a barrier to that success, we must do what we can to remove the obstacles. Health literacy has become one of our most important recent initiatives." Through their participation in Enroll Lake County, Waukegan Public Library aims to enroll 1,000 individuals during the upcoming enrollment period that runs from October 2013 to March 2014.

Waukegan Public Library, a 2013 IMLS National Medal Winner, shared their story and insights into how libraries can address emerging community information needs regarding the Affordable Care Act in a webinar hosted by WebJunction. A recording of the webinar is available on YouTube.