With a little help from its Friends

The Dunkirk Free Library has no time for fair-weather friends. Fortunate, then, that these folks are wearing their galoshes.

The Friends of the Dunkirk Free Library group is more than an auxiliary, though fundraising is a big part of what they do to support Dunkirk’s library at 536 Central Ave. With an ever-shrinking budget and a tough economy, the library can use all the financial help it can get.

“We are operating on a budget of $209,663. We get $135,000 from the city. This is down from $171,500 in 2011 (21 percent),” Library Director Janice Dekoff explains.

That’s the same budget the library had in the late 1980s. And during that time, the library housed mostly books, and its primary goal was providing patrons with something to read. In 2013, the library’s focus and programs have grown to include children’s activities, community readings, an up-to-date computer lab, and classes to help teach people how to use them – for free. That’s a lot to fit under one umbrella, and the Friends are doing all they can to make sure the high cost for all of these services doesn’t leave the library and its patrons out in the rain.

“Due to the limitations of the budget, the library has had to reduce operating hours starting in January 2013. Our materials budget was reduced by 20 percent in 2013. We have less money to spend on programming, supplies, and special events,” Dekoff says.

Many locals remember growing up in Dunkirk and being able to go to the library after school to do homework, or going there in the evenings to meet friends or to study. Some people just liked to relax there after work for a couple of hours, enjoying the peace that reading and the smell of books brought them. That’s more difficult now.

According to the library’s website, they are open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Saturdays, they are open until 3. Sundays they are closed. Tuesdays and Thursdays feature the latest hours, when the library is open until 7 p.m. At this time, the library simply does not have the money for labor and utilities to stay open any later.

“Dunkirk needs this library,” Friends Treasurer Margie Dye says. “So many kids go straight from school to the library to read, use the computers or do homework.”

Despite the mounting challenges the library faces, Dekoff and her tireless staff of Pamela Czarniak, children’s coordinator; clerks Candyce Alessi, Shannon Culler, Roberta Jones, Diane Kaszuba, Nancy Ortiz and Judy Sobilo; and facilities staff Carol Davis and Michael Giardina won’t give up on their mission to bring books’ refreshing properties to the word-thirsty masses of Dunkirk. And as with any challenge, it helps to have friends – or in this case, “Friends.”

“The Friends have been huge supporters of children’s programming,” Dekoff says. “They have made it possible to purchase supplies for our seasonal events, like the Children’s Carnival, which are very popular. They have also supported our summer reading program by purchasing craft supplies and materials and financing entertainers, as they did with Glenn Colton.”

Dekoff, her staff and the Friends work very hard to keep the programs at the library free, fun and educational. Czarniak is always planning new events for the children’s library, which, in addition to great books, puzzles, and games, features Torro, the library’s resident tortoise. With its vibrant surroundings and air-conditioning, the children’s library is a great place for parents to visit this summer with their children. There are even bathrooms and a drinking fountain on-site for patrons’ comfort.

But helping with the children’s programming isn’t all the Friends do.

“They help with materials costs by making an annual donation to the library materials budget,” Dekoff adds. “They have helped make the building a more inviting place to be by supplying an air conditioner for the computer lab, carpeting the stairs at the main entrance for safety, and by helping to fund the lighting renovation.”

The Friends of the DFL will also pay for a free community computer class. Patrons look forward to these classes, which range in subject matter from computer basics to using programs like Microsoft Excel. There is always a waiting list to get into these classes. In this area, with its recent factory closings and businesses moving out, many patrons turn to the internet to look for jobs and to fill out applications. These computer classes are not only a popular program at the library; they are vital to a community losing jobs in the digital age.

The Friends raised about half of the cost of the computer class from their first-ever Cutest Pet Contest this spring. Community members decorated coffee cans with their pets’ pictures and proudly displayed them at the library so that patrons could “vote” with their spare change. Pets of all types and sizes were entered, from a Lionhead Rabbit named Parsley to a Mini Horse named Ringo Starr. First place was won by Caesar Tarnowski, owned by the Tarnowski family of Pomfret. Caesar is still a puppy whose pedigree is up for debate, as he came from Joyful Rescues in Cuba, N.Y. Among other charming habits, Caesar is a loyal dog who loves spending time with “his people.” His clown-like antics are an endless source of amusement for the Tarnowskis, which help get him out of “the doghouse” whenever he misbehaves – which is more frequent than not.

“(Caesar) is so bad when he’s left alone!” his “mom,” Jodi Tarnowski, says. “He is an allergic mess who has ‘accidents’ on the floor when he is mad at you. He loves to take car rides and play with squeaky toys.”

Caesar may think his middle name is “No,” but he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t, and is smart enough to hold grudges. He is very much a full-fledged member of the Tarnowski family, and they love him in spite of and because of his quirks.

Second place in the Cutest Pet Contest went to Violet Rose Cuthbert, a German Shepherd owned by the Cuthbert family of Fredonia. Buddy the Yorkie, also of Fredonia, took third place. Sam, a white dog owned by Vicki Westling; Harold III, a Burnese Mountain Dog owned by the Easton family; and Nika, a Shih Tzu-Pekingese mix owned by Alexis of Dunkirk received honorable mentions for finishing near the top of the “pack.” Lola the Cairn Terrier, owned by the Diodatos, was titled “Most Feminine;” Ringo Starr the Mini Horse, owned by the Rednocks, was titled “Most Unique;” Parsley the Lionhead Rabbit, owned by the Donithens, was named “Most Regal;” CiCi the Cockapoo, owned by the Fortnas, was titled “Best Cuddler;” and Pepper the cat, owned by Bernice Sedlmayer, was named “Feline Representative.” All of the winners and participants received gifts for entering.

“The Friends would like to thank the pet owners and the library patrons who voted, as well as Nestle-Purina and Lake Shore Savings in Dunkirk for donating prizes,” Friends President Marie Damico says. “They helped us thank the pet owners.”

In June, the Friends held their annual Summer Book Sale. The community donated DVDs, VHS tapes and books for several weeks prior to the sale, which were tirelessly sorted and labeled by the librarians, Friends and volunteers. The donated items were then sold at bargain prices to shoppers who visited the tent on the front lawn of the library the day of the sale.

“We have a long list of people who helped with the sale that we need to thank,” Alessi, who is also one of the Friends and the chairperson of this year’s sale, says. “In addition to our members, library staff and volunteers, the Friends are grateful to the Department of Corrections for their time and effort; G&E tents, owned by the Bankoskis, for not only the use of but the set-up and take-down of the tables and the large white tent that kept the books out of the rain; the City of Dunkirk for the use of the picnic tables; WDOE and the OBSERVER for the advertisement; St. John’s Church, who let the Friends use their large sign; and all of the patrons and community members who donated and purchased items.”

The book sale is one of the group’s biggest fundraisers, one which many community members, Friends and library employees look forward to.

“The book sale is my favorite event because I have a vested interest in the library,” Alessi says. “I know how important supplemental funding is since two years of budget cuts have occurred. ‘Friends of the Library’ fundraising has greatly helped facilitate many programs that otherwise may not have been possible.”

The money raised from the sale went toward paying the last of the bills for the library’s lighting project, which has made enjoying the facilities there much easier. With the new bright lights, patrons can also notice all of the beautiful restoration work that’s been done to the library’s walls and ceiling.

“Thanks to the book sale and other events, our budget is very healthy this year,” Dye says. “We can afford to help the library get more of what it needs.”

Also completed in the spring was the clean-up and beautification of the library’s grounds and flowerbeds, organized by long-time member and Recording Secretary Shirley Scott. Nancy Phillips, another active Friends member who helped with the landscaping, says that the Friends received assistance with the project from Dunkirk High School seniors.

“The Dunkirk seniors helped so much getting the gardens at the library done and we want to thank them for that,” Phillips says. “They did it as a part of their Senior Sweep.”

Currently, the Friends are sponsoring an adult poetry workshop at the library, which meets weekly through mid-August. This workshop is a chance for adults who are interested in writing poetry to brush up on old skills and to build new ones in an encouraging and friendly environment.

On Aug. 13, the workshop will culminate in a community reading, with punch, coffee and refreshments provided by the Friends. Workshop participants will have the opportunity to select poems they have written or developed during their time in the program to share with their families, friends and other patrons.

In the fall, the Friends will once again help Dekoff and the other librarians with their annual auction, which raises much-needed funds for library facilities and programs.

“The Friends have been extremely supportive of the library auction. Over the last two years, the Friends have taken on the task of providing baked goods as refreshments. There are never any leftovers! They always make wonderful gift baskets for the auction that are very popular,” Dekoff says.

The Friends of the Dunkirk Free Library have a new Facebook page, which can be accessed by going to www.facebook.com/pages/Friends-of-the-Dunkirk-Free-Library. Community members can go there for meeting and event details and to ask about membership. With all of the programs currently scheduled, and the forthcoming projects that Dekoff and Czarniak are cooking up, volunteers, fundraisers and Friends will be needed more than ever before.

“The library is going to continue growing and evolving with new technologies and I want it to be the place where community members can come and learn about those technological advances. I am looking forward to making new programs available to adults. We have made great strides updating the building. The library is a vibrant, well-used community institution and I want to see it continue to grow and thrive!” Dekoff says.

“The library is an important fixture of Dunkirk,” Friends Vice President Lenore Fiebelkorn says. “With the literature available there, the computer lab and the free programs they offer, we need the library now more than ever. And, in the day of the Kindle, there are still people who want to hold books.”

New members are always welcome to join the Friends of the Dunkirk Free Library. The next meeting will be the first meeting of the 2013-2014 season, held Tuesday, Sept. 3 at 5:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the library. Membership information will also be available at the poetry reading on Aug. 13.

It’s true that the economy is struggling, and that budget cuts are more of an expectation than a surprise these days. Everyone is feeling the strain. But with the help of its Friends, the Dunkirk Free Library – with its sturdy brick countenance and homey, book-scented interior – will be a community haven for future generations of bookworms and bibliomaniacs alike.