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Changing Lives One Book At A Time

Jeanine Asche, who oversees outreach and literacy programs for the San Mateo County Library, wants to give children what they deserve: a literate life with access to books.

If anyone knows firsthand what literacy, an education and support programs can do for a child living on the margins and coping with adversity, it’s El Granada resident Jeanine Asche.

Growing up in Santa Cruz as the only child of a single mother on welfare, Asche knows all too well the struggles, hardships and desires of a family in need.

Still, it was having access to books and discovering a passion for reading that saved her, and gave her hope for a better future.

“Books not only took me to other countries and even worlds, they also validated that I was okay even though I was from a nontraditional family,” said Asche, who fondly remembers reading as a child “Heidi,” “The Secret Garden,” and the “Wizard of Oz” series. “These books had absent parents, a supportive grandfather, disabled characters, and female protagonists that I so needed to know was okay. Plus, they gave an added subtle message of living with and through adversity.”

Asche also credits being “raised in a time when schools, libraries and support services were better funded than they are today” as a reason for her burgeoning love of reading and books.

So it’s no wonder that today Asche’s passion and life’s work is working for the betterment of children and families by providing them access to books, education and literacy programs. She’s worked for the San Mateo County Library (SMCL) since 1988 and is currently oversees outreach and literacy programs as its Community Engagement Services Manager.

She’s also been a volunteer for the past 10 years for Coastside Children’s Program (CCP), a nonprofit agency that administers child care and development centers that providing educational, recreational and skill-building activities. Currently, Asche is the agency's board president.

“A chance for a good life is what every child deserves, and I plan to give it to each and every child in our community in whatever way I can,” said Asche, who describes her work style as “passionate, efficient and determined.”

Asche comes to her position at the library with a Bachelor of Arts degree from University of California - Santa Cruz, a Master's of Library Science from San Jose State and more than 30 years of library experience.

During her tenure at the library, she's taken library service in new directions to meet the literacy needs of the county’s ever-changing populations. Asche was one of the driving forces behind the conception of the Raising A Reader program which promotes literacy skills to families with young children. She also spearheaded other innovative programs such as outreach to incarcerated youth, visits to health clinics, giveaway book programs, homework/mentoring programs, the Books for Babies program, the Food for Fines program, and more. For her efforts, Asche has received awards from the San Mateo County Reading Association, Women in County Government, the Fatherhood Collaborative and the Children's Report Initiative.

“I imagined a county where every child would have access to early literacy opportunities and developed a vision of how we could get there,” said Asche of her work at the library.

Today, early literacy is strongly imbedded in so much of what the San Mateo County library does, but when “I first assumed my duties as a Library Services Manager, this was not the case,” she said. “Baby story times were offered in only a couple of our branches, and we had no early literacy outreach services for at-risk families. The concept of early literacy was not yet a common concept in public libraries in general and it was only just beginning to be seen in non-school county agencies serving families,” said Asche, who initially started all of these outreach efforts with no money and no staff.

In the collaboration meetings that she led, Asche says she tried to create an atmosphere that promoted dreaming big first, then acquiring resources later, which is evident in the breadth and success of the library's outreach services.

In addition to participating on many county collaboration efforts, where she infused the importance of literacy and library services into other agency’s efforts, she also started and led her own multi-agency committees. Collaborating organizations included the County Health Department, County Office of Education, Child Care Coordinating Council, Head Start, Peninsula Community Foundation, Peninsula Library System, school districts, the State Library and others.

The relationships that she grew and nurtured from these collaborations were the impetus and foundation for many of the Library’s exceptional outreach services.

“The input they contributed to the process was invaluable,” said Asche.

Because of these exciting early literacy programs, Asche said, the county's library system is now seen as a leader in the field of early literacy throughout the state.

Some of these notable outreach services and early literacy programs are now career highlights for Asche, and include overseeing a committee that developed a new homebound material delivery program now being offered in six branches, giving lifelong learning opportunities to approximately 25 adults and seniors who, due to physical limitations, are unable to visit their libraries; and coordinating the effort to secure funding for the TEEN (Teens Engaged in Employment Now) grant for the East Palo Alto library and the Family Place program for the Half Moon Bay library. Asche also wrote and received grants that provides funding for books along with an author visit for incarcerated youth book clubs.

Another notable achievement for Asche was coordinating a new system-wide Food for Fines program in collaboration with Redwood City Public Library, the Board of Supervisors and Second Harvest Food Bank.

SMCL collected 23,288 pounds of food and waived a total of $39,137 in fines and fees for 3,304 community members and families. Asche credits all of her accomplishments to “exceptional collaborators and staff. I feel it’s my job to just kick the ball and get it rolling in a direction, but keeping it going towards the goal takes many great team members.”

Still, when it’s at the end of the day, the cause she is most committed to is “literacy for all,” she said. “I see it as a political issue and basic human right to which everyone is entitled. A person simply can’t better himself or herself without being literate. As a society, we should invest in early education such as CCP and libraries to ensure this.”

She brings her passion for serving children and families and ensuring they have quality programs that promote educational opportunities to her volunteer work for CCP. Asche believes that the Coastside is very lucky to have this type of program so easily accessible to all the school sites.

“The site directors provide stimulating environments and wonderful educational enrichment activities that will contribute to the development of our children," Asche said, "and lead them to becoming successful adults.”

When Asche is not working, she’s oil painting, hiking with her husband of 31 years, “refereeing a crazy lab mix and a rambunctious kitten,” she said, or spending time with her two children. Her oldest is Michael, 27, who graduated from Half Moon Bay High, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and is now a lieutenant in the Navy having been deployed twice to Kuwait. He's now married and working on his master’s at the Naval Post Grad School. Audrey, 23, graduated from Half Moon Bay High and lives at home as a part-time student attending College of San Mateo and working three part-time jobs. 

Asche’s husband, Jim, retired as Half Moon Bay’s Fire Chief in 2006 and continues to work part-time for San Mateo County’s Office of Emergency Services. Though Asche says she loves her work, she plans to retire, too, in two to three years. “I hope to have more time to volunteer, travel, spend time with friends, hike, bike and just relax more with Jim and the rest of my family, who are the lights of my life,” she said.

Even then, Asche will surely continue her plight and passion for providing children opportunities for acquiring the literacy skills needed to create a successful future in school and beyond.

“I figure if I have helped change just one life for the better through reading, it’s all been worth it,” said Asche. “I know, because reading changed my life.”

Here’s what else Asche has to say about her life on the Coast and her passion for literacy for all:

 What inspired you to pursue a degree and career in library science?

I started working at a library right out of high school as a page. I never intended to become a librarian, but I was going to college taking general education classes and gradually really started to like the work. They put me in the children's area and gave more and more responsibility. I was promoted to clerk and then library assistant and began doing things like story hour and realized I loved it. While finishing my bachelor’s degree, I decided that I would pursue a master's in library science. It took me a little while to accomplish that because I married and started having kids along the way, but I eventually finished. It's been a great career, and I've never regretted my decision. It has also given me great satisfaction knowing I’m contributing positively to the world. Getting kids literate is not only good for the child, it is great for the community.

What changes have you been a part of at CCP?

Dwight Wilson deserves a lot of credit for keeping the agency headed in such a positive direction while he was at the helm as president for so many years. I learned a lot from him. Unfortunately one change that was difficult to weather has been the economic downturn, which had a great effect on our agency. Our new executive director, Agnes Chan, is very efficient and made much-needed system changes. Along with our finance director, Karen Raab, we were able to get our agency back in the black. I can't take credit for all they did and how well staff responded, but as president I have tried to help with keeping our sights on the big picture goals and mentoring Agnes along the way.

Most influential people in your life:

My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Jared, read to our class every day. He read quality, award-winning books like “Rascal” and “Call it Courage” that I just loved. I can read a trashy novel with the best of them, but he gave me a thirst for quality literature that remains today. I also remember a high school teacher who told us you don't have to know all the information in the world; you just need to know how to find it. His advice was very freeing and helped influence my career choice and contributed to my skill as a somewhat tenacious reference librarian. I also remember Mrs. Krupp, a Sunday school teacher. She gave unconditional kindness to everyone and once told us that she believed God is the air around you. This was a radical notion to an 8-year-old who thought of God in a childlike literal sense as a white haired man looking down at us from a cloud filled heaven and planted a seed that has helped me form a strong spiritual base that is still with me today. Last not but not least, my husband. I’ve known him since I was 17, and he's just a great guy and has stuck by me through thick and thin these many years.

What makes you truly happy?

A lot makes me happy. Good times with family and friends, a cool coastal breeze on my face during a walk in the hills behind my house, watching my mischievous cat sneak up on our sleeping dog, finishing a long labored oil painting, sea salt caramel gelato from New Leaf, and a job well done at work. But I think what makes me most happy is when my family is happy and doing well in life; that's what a mom ultimately wants most.

You feel at home when:

I’m sitting on my family room couch in the evening with my husband’s arm around me watching a good movie or reading a good book. Add to that a glass of Hatcher Zinfandel, and it’s perfection.

Book or movie or life experience that changed your life:

“To Kill a Mockingbird.” I read voraciously as a young child, but became a somewhat disillusioned angry young teen and mostly stopped reading during that time of my life. I decided to browse our high school library one time when our home TV broke (it was usually on almost 24 hours a day), and the school librarian recommended it to me. It was so powerful and reawakened my love for reading and thirst for connecting to a greater world.

The household chore you secretly hate doing:

Pretty much everything, but I love a clean house so I do what has to be done. With Jim being partly retired, he does a lot. Plus, we have a wonderful person who helps once a week, too.

What TV shows do you like to watch?

Because of commercials, other than the "PBS News Hour," "CSI" is the only broadcast show I watch. My daughter and I love it and it’s a Thursday night tradition. We do watch a lot of TV series on commercial-free DVDs that I check out of the library. Some of these guilty pleasures that my daughter and I love are "Dexter" and "True Blood," and a couple of my all-time favorites that I’ve watched on my own have been "Six Feet Under," "Sopranos" and "The Wire," which was amazingly produced. My husband and I loved "Northern Exposure" and we are currently loving "Glee" and "Modern Family" — they are a hoot. 

Favorite place to eat on the Coast:

There are so many, but if I had to pick only one, I'd say . However, Flavor is a wonderful restaurant, too, with a great menu that CCP recently held a fundraising event.

Pat June 06, 2011 at 05:19 PM
Jeanine Asche is my hero! I have attended a literacy breakfast she coordinates, volunteered with the incarcerated youth book clubs and currently work for Raising A Reader San Francisco and Alameda Counties. She has done so much for San Mateo County. I hope the City Oakland produces a budget that allows libraries to keep their doors open because our society needs “literacy for all” https://www.facebook.com/saveopl

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