Circulation has gone up 21 percent and new library cards have tripled in Turners Station because of a cop named Chuck.
Officer Chuck Hart walks a beat in the old, working-class Baltimore County neighborhood near the Dundalk Marine Terminal.
A 27-year-old weight lifter with clear eyes and a spiky Bart Simpson haircut, Officer Hart used to lock people up in Turners Station for drugs.
Yesterday he was helping a sixth-grader look up the word Presbyterian.
"You can do it," he said, standing with student James Evans in front of a worn, fat dictionary.
"Sound the word out."
C7 Nice work from a guy who says he spent all his time
growing up on ball fields and in gyms and very little of it in the library.
"I could never see myself in this role," he said. "But here I am."
Every Thursday after school, anywhere from 30 to 40 elementary and middle school students from Turners Station show up at the cinder block and plywood library on New Pittsburg Avenue to do their homework and take turns reading to each other, to Officer Hart and to a group of volunteers he has recruited to help.
"I'm amazed," said Milton E. Dutcher, branch manager of Baltimore County libraries in the North Point area. "I've never seen this many people in this library at one time, not ever."
Lena James, an assistant librarian who has workedat the Turners Station branch for nine years, said, "I'm seeing kids and their parents in here I've never seen before. We usually do about two or three new library cards a week. Since Officer Hart started this, we're doing eight to 10."
Officer Hart was assigned to Turners Station about three years ago as an undercover drug detective.
Although the problem isn't as bad as it is in Baltimore, a lot of young people hang out on corners, drinking and selling cocaine and other drugs, police said.
Last week, with the help of neighbors who were fed up with street dealing, police swept through and made 23 arrests.
Although Officer Hart believes in that kind of work, he also believes in giving youngsters an alternative to dope, and his superiors thought he could make a bigger difference as a community relations officer. He started walking a beat this summer and in August decided to drop in at the 6,000-vol
ume library while making rounds of local businesses.
"There were only a few kids in here," he said, "so I sat down between two of them and got them to read to each other, and then I read to them for a little while.
"When I looked up, I was surrounded by kids."
The experience prompted Officer Hart to ask the county library system if he could start a once-a-week, after-school homework and reading program. The answer was yes. It is held every Thursday night, the only time the library has evening hours.
Library officials are thinking about expanding those hours because of Officer Hart's success.
"We're not just giving out answers, it's not a gimme," he said. "They're working for it."
Mr. Dutcher said it would cost very little to run the program at least one more night a week because it operates with the help of volunteer administrators and honor students Officer Hart recruited from Dundalk
Senior High School.
Last week, Shanntel M. Dickerson, 10, heard about the fun going on at the library and told her mother she wanted to go. She was issued a borrowers card four days ago.
"This is my fourth time coming to this library, and this is the first time I ever had a library card," she said, holding it up and pointing to her name.
"I come here all the time. I like to read because it's quiet. If I don't have anything to do and it's not time to go to bed and there's nothing good on TV, I'll read a book," Shanntel said.
Officer Hart looked over the crowd of students who have spread books all over the tables and floor and smiled at a bunch of kids so different from the young Chuckie Hart who cared very much for sports and very little for books.
"They must really want to be here," he said. "They've just been in school for six hours and as soon as they get off the bus, they come to the library. They want to learn."