Each year, the Queens Public Library Foundation invites library staff to submit ideas for new and innovative programs that address the specific needs of their communities. Your donation helps support these initiatives through the Foundation’s Innovation Fund, which provides up to $10,000 each to selected libraries to implement their programs and discover new ways of engaging and supporting the public.

The 2021 Innovation Fund awarded grants to ten exciting new programs throughout the system which respond to the challenges our communities face in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the Library’s talented staff and the generosity of its donors, these initiatives will have a remarkable impact on their communities:

Ask Teisha: A Personal Assistant for Teens and Young Adults, Long Island City Library: The pandemic exacerbated already higher-than-average rates of unemployment, mental illness, dropouts and poverty among teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 who live in NYCHA’s Astoria, Queensbridge, Ravenswood, and Woodside residential complexes and elsewhere in Long Island City.

In an effort to reduce these rates and increase engagement with young people, the LIC team will expand access to educational and professional opportunities, as well as to reliable information by working with five youth interns and external partners to develop and deploy “Ask Teisha,” the QPL version of Alexa, Siri, Cortana and other voice-activated personal assistants. “Ask Teisha” will be integrated into QPL’s social media channels and website, be available 24/7 and interact with young customers through text and voice messages. The goal is to help them thrive in school, in their careers and in their workplaces.

Board Gaming Bins, Multiple Locations: More than a year of limited interaction with other people as a result of the pandemic has generated feelings of loneliness and dislocation among some individuals in our communities. As part of their research for this proposal, staff found that board games and gaming are effective ways to encourage people to socialize and generate positive emotion.

With this in mind, Astoria, Cambria Heights, Corona, Douglaston, Far Rockaway Teen Center, Fresh Meadows, Hunters Point, Middle Village, Mitchell Linden, Peninsula, Queensboro Hill, and Windsor Park libraries will each receive a bin of board games. Staff at these sites will learn how to play the games and organize events and tournaments around them as soon as our branches reopen for in-person programs.

Creating and Promoting Post-COVID LGBTQ Youth Safe Spaces, LGBTQ+ Allies Steering Committee: Research shows LGBTQ youth suffer significantly higher risks of substance misuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide than non-LGBTQ youth, and this was exacerbated during the pandemic by social distancing, and the need for LGBTQ youth to remain in unsafe housing situations. To help make QPL’s libraries more welcoming and supportive of vulnerable LGBTQ youth, the LGBTQ+ Allies Steering Committee will highlight QPL’s existing queer friendly materials, services and spaces, and add new visual representations, materials, staff training, and educational events in collaboration with partnering organizations.

English for School Engagements, Elmhurst Adult Learning Center: Having observed so many immigrant parents and caregivers struggle to communicate with their children’s teachers and schools, the Elmhurst ALC will create weekly workshops to help them improve their English skills and participate more fully in their children’s lives.

These sessions —which will focus on topics such as parent teacher conferences, completing applications and forms, navigating the New York City public school system, volunteering at school, and on digital literacy, socializing and small talk, as well as on bullying, harassment and discrimination —will be held virtually and in-person.

Healing Connections to the Next Normal: Expressive Therapies for Older Adults, Glen Oaks, Bay Terrace, and Douglaston/Little Neck: The pandemic forced many older adults to isolate themselves from their friends, families and loved ones for more than a year. As a result, they suffered loneliness, cognitive decline and significantly less activity. The staffs at Glen Oaks, Bay Terrace and Douglaston/Little Neck have developed a program to promote emotional and mental recovery through art, music and dance, and to help people overcome psychological, social, and emotional challenges with the assistance of a geriatric professional. The multi-session program, which will be offered virtually, in-person, or both, also involves the purchase of additional tablets to continue the branches’ work to bridge the digital divide.

Healthy Eating for a Healthy You, Health & Safety, Central: A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 61 percent of American adults reported gaining weight during the pandemic, and a survey among Queens Public Library staff showed similar results, with 62 percent of staff describing undesired weight changes and 68 percent describing changes in their nutrition during the pandemic. Healthy Eating for a Healthy You is a system-wide initiative coordinated by QPL Health and Safety that will provide virtual group nutritional workshops hosted by a registered dietitian nutritionist, who will also provide one-on-one assistance to Queens Public Library staff.

Initiatives to Combat the Rise in Anti-Asian Hate, Elmhurst Library: For members of the staff at Elmhurst Library, the rise in anti-Asian hate crime and harassment since the start of the pandemic in 2020 brought into focus the need to raise awareness about racism against AAPI people. This project calls for expanding the AAPI collection and creating an AAPI experience section at Elmhurst Library. It also will offer a series of free, virtual self-defense, microaggression and resilience trainings. The goal of the initiatives is to not only offer AAPI customers strategies for protecting themselves, but also make clear that the Library is their home.

Online SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test) Prep Course, Central Library: Prior to the start of the pandemic, SHSAT prep classes at Central had extremely high attendance and retention. Seats in the classes filled up quickly, and parents and caregivers of students who were shut out sometimes asked whether the courses could be offered online. With the advent of remote learning during the pandemic, many students became accustomed to onscreen lessons, and staff saw that bringing the classes online was possible.

Working with the standardized test prep powerhouse Kaplan and with Central’s longtime SHSAT and SAT instructor Jed Levine, Central staff will develop a comprehensive, virtual SHSAT prep course targeting middle school students.

Seed Library Pilot Program, Queensboro Hill, East Elmhurst, Rochdale Village, and Kew Garden Hills: In recognition of the devastating effects of the pandemic, such as food insecurity, mental health issues, and the rise of anti-AAPI violence, the four branches will work with the Queens Botanical Garden to pilot QPL’s first-ever “seed library” and create a greenspace at Queensboro Hill. The goal of the project is to cultivate new skills, strengthen community ties and connect people to nature.

The seed library will feature five categories —pollinators for butterflies, pollinators for bees, easy-to-kill/hard-to-grow, hard-to-grow/easy-to-kill, and rare — of noninvasive and native seeds for flowers, fruits and vegetables. Programming includes instruction for beginner and advanced gardeners, classes about native plants, urban gardening and other topics.

3C: Coping, Culture and Communication, Flushing Adult Learning Center: Many caregivers in Flushing’s Asian community have been unable to participate in the Library’s online classes during the pandemic because of time and technology constraints. To ensure our content is fully accessible at all times, the Flushing ALC developed a program designed to strengthen caregivers’ coping and technology skills, and to enhance their English acquisition. The program also will include fun, collaborative activities for families.

Course content will be added to Google Classroom before classes go live, so students can prepare themselves beforehand. In addition to English, students will learn how to use smartphones to take virtual classes, how to get the most out of online learning programs and how to navigate the social services system. While the ESOL classes will be taught in English, all workshops will be conducted in Mandarin and English.