Library smoke

As participants in the Portage Public Library's summer reading program "ooh!" and "ahh!", Scott Douglas demonstrates how chemicals, if handled carefully and with adult supervision, can create all kinds of effects, including the smoky steam arising from the bottle.

Lyn Jerde

At about this time a year ago, the Portage Public Library’s children’s area was a construction zone.

On Thursday, it was a give-back zone.

The library’s summer program came to an end Thursday with a demonstration of fun with chemistry offered by Scott Douglas, a presenter for the Lake Geneva-based Science Alliance. About 90 students in first through sixth grade saw Douglas’ presentation “Close Encounters of the Chemical Kind,” and some of them went home with souvenirs, such as a cup of slime (also called “gak” or “flubber”) made from ordinary household products such as borax detergent and glue.

But the most profound change that the students witnessed wasn’t the color change that came with mixing one chemical with another, or the short burst of flame from gas being ignited in a bottle.

The biggest change was in the summer library program itself.

Instead of buying trinkets to give out as prizes to motivated readers, the Friends of the Library (with help from the Waddell and Reed Company) gave money to local charities.

And the participants in the summer program chose which charities to support.

Dawn Foster, youth services librarian, said library officials last winter developed a list of about 12 local charities, and the list was narrowed to three: The Columbia County Humane Society, the Portage Food Pantry and the Portage Splash Pad.

For every two hours they spent reading, the 500-plus participants in the summer program (from infants to teens) got one vote as to which of these charities should receive donations. The votes took the form of colored dots, posted on the windows of the children’s area next to the names of the charities.

Foster said she thinks giving young people the opportunity to give back to the community is at least as much of a motivator for summer reading as the chance to win a trinket as a prize.

“Really, the community chose these three charities,” she said. “Families loved the opportunity to talk about giving to others and giving back to the community.”

Library Director Shannon Schultz said the library, a year ago, benefitted from the community’s generosity. The city of Portage, the Bidwell Foundation and numerous individual and corporate donors helped make the $1.5 million, 6,500-square-foot addition a reality.

“We’re so lucky to be in Portage,” Schultz said, “because there are so many people here who care about kids and adults.”

One interesting phenomenon that Foster noticed, as the colored-dot votes started accumulating, was the tendency of some young participants to advocate for more votes for a charity that was falling behind.

In the end, all three charities got a donation. The Splash Pad, with the lowest number of votes, received $50 – and a huge round of applause when Foster asked the assembled youngsters, “How many of you have been to the Splash Pad?” Gary O’Hearn, who spearheaded the Splash Pad project for the Portage Service Clubs Association, received the donation.

Receiving the second-largest vote total was the Portage Food Pantry. Mark Goldsworthy, treasurer, accepted the $100 donation.

The Columbia County Humane Society received the most votes and $150, prompting Humane Society animal adoption counselor Ernie Wolff to comment, “The cats and dogs are going to love it.”

Douglas closed his hour-long hands-on chemistry demonstration by reminding the children in attendance that boys or girls who are willing to study chemistry in college can find any number of jobs, such as working for law enforcement agencies as forensic chemists or helping to design new scents for perfumes or flavors for jelly beans.

Foster, too, reminded the children of their potential – as people who give back to the community that has given to them.

“It’s all about community, and everyone working together,” she said.