School’s out for Bardin Elementary in East Salinas, so two staff members of Cesar Chavez Library push a baby-blue cart to intercept children walking home. Many students skip, while gripping their backpack straps, in the direction of the cart. Some glance at the cart curiously and slow their pace.
“Are you selling paletas?” a girl asks excitedly, inquiring after the popular Mexican-style desserts on a stick.
“No ice cream,” librarian Carol Lovos says and smiles. “But we have books.”
Plenty of kids ask the same question when the cart visits nearby neighborhoods every Tuesday and Thursday. With its bright paint job of a baby-blue – green-and-pink ice cream cone beside a book, it’s understandable. But no pineapple ice cream or Flaming Hot Cheetos here. Instead, it’s everything from picture books for preschoolers to novels for young adults.
When library clerk Luis Moya opens the cart’s lid, a few kids stop to look inside and get the rundown: Youngsters with library cards can check out as many books as they can hold; those without a card can complete an application form and get a guardian’s signature; anyone can take a donated book for free.
A brother and sister on Razor scooters slide to the cart, bringing back completed applications given to them at a school assembly. They receive their library cards within two minutes.
The sister, a first-grader, picks out four books. Lovos notices some titles are in Spanish and asks the girl if she can read the language.
“My sister can read Spanish,” the older brother says proudly. “So can I, when I want to.”
While Lovos scans books and Moya enters information on an iPad, the brother asks, “Do you guys have something so we can tell when you’re around? You know, like a bell?”
“We’re working on it,” Moya says.
The Paletero Program launched in February, but the concept originated two years ago from Dr. Carissa Purnell, current director of the Alisal Family Resource Center.
“In this community, paleteros are loved,” Purnell says. “They’re on the streets every day and know the families.
“It’s important to meet people where they are,” she adds. “If they can’t come to the library, the library will come to them.”
Moya laughed when he first heard about it. “But it’s been great for outreach,” he says. “We’re checking out books while making parents aware of programs we have like the homework center; courses for GED, computer skills and citizenship tests; and summer reading.”
On another warm afternoon, site supervisor Don Gardner and library clerk Natalie Worden roll the cart down the library’s ramp and along Williams Road. A trio of kids ride by on bikes yelling, “Paletero, paletero!” The cart meets its first patron: a middle-aged woman holding a baby girl close to her chest with two toddlers by her side.
“I want to get a book,” she says regretfully. “But I lost my card.”
“No hay problema,” Gardner says, smiling. “We can renew you right now.”
Gardner says the woman is a library regular who checks out books for children she cares for at least once a week.
Gardner greets more regulars while taking a left onto Del Monte Avenue. A paletero riding a bike with a rack of chips on it waves at him.
“You have Ingles Sin Barreras?” the paletero asks, referring to the popular English learning series.
“Sorry, not yet,” Gardner says.
The paletero, who takes English classes at the library, gets back on his bike and tells Gardner, “OK, take care.”
Gardner pushes the cart over the speed bumps of an apartment complex; at the end of the apartments, two boys play marbles in a plot of sand.
“We’re from the library, want some books?” Worden asks.
The boys look at each other, then run to their homes to fetch books coming due. One boy comes back with three books in his arms and the clitter-clatter of marbles in his pockets (he’s the winner). The two boys are too shy for small talk, but they check out their dinosaur books and go on their way.
“Due in three weeks, OK?” Worden calls after the boys.
At a neighboring home, five children and their babysitter approach the cart. Each child checks out two books, grabbing their new reads eagerly.
Since the Paletero Program launched, the lone cart has given out about 100 library cards.
“Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes days are slow,” Gardner says, waiting at a crosswalk. “We just want them to know we’re here in the community.”