Her job description may be working with books, but it is with local veterans, impoverished residents and even inmates at the Suffolk County Jail where Liz Stokes finds her true purpose.
Since she started working at Riverhead Free Library 30 years ago, Stokes has found countless ways to change lives within the Riverhead community.
A passionate advocate for local veterans, she has formed food and clothing donation collections, organized events and fundraisers and spearheaded a town committee specifically for veterans issues, which she currently co-chairs.
With Stokes’ help, that committee launched a benefits card program this year so that veterans can receive a variety of discounts at local businesses.
But the Riverhead woman’s volunteer work goes well beyond veterans advocacy.
Nine years ago, she formed a women’s empowerment group at the Suffolk County Jail to give female inmates a safe space to talk about the challenges of their incarceration, their addictions and their personal lives.
Bringing soft-cover books from the library, she meets every Wednesday with a group of about a dozen women at the jail for a book club-style meeting, though the group’s conversations usually steer toward much more personal topics.
In nine years and more than 150 women who have gone through the program, only 10 have returned to jail, Stokes said today.
“These are smart, intelligent women who have college degrees – some are nurses, some are doctors, some are lawyers – and they’re addicted to prescription drugs and heroin,” Stokes said. “They’re fighting family court issues, they’re fighting their criminal case and they’re fighting an addiction. These women are doomed to fail unless someone comes in there and sits at a table with them and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to help you be a better person.’
“And that’s all I really do,” she added. “I’m not a counselor, I’m not a social worker, I’m not an attorney. I’m just someone from the community that believes in them.”
And that, says Katherine Regina from the Suffolk County Library Assocation, is why the association has chosen Stokes as this year’s sole recipient of its annual public service award.
“She is someone who exemplifies exactly why this award was created,” Regina said today after surprising Stokes with the award at a library staff meeting. “She does so much outside of the library. Working in libraries for 15 years, I’ve had many great heads of circulations, but not like Liz.”
Stokes was selected from a pool of nominees county-wide to receive the association’s Excellence in Library Service Award, which for the past 15 years has recognized library workers for public service in their communities.
“You can imagine how many people are put before that committee as a recommendation for this award,” said Joy Rankin, Riverhead Free Library director. “Liz has made such an impact on this library and this community. This honor is so well-deserved.”
Stokes said today that her position at the library, where she is currently head of circulation, has opened her eyes to the need in the community.
“Working here has afforded me the gift to feel the real heartbeat of this town,” Stokes said. “You get to hear everyone’s stories.”
For many, the town’s library provides much more than its books. It is a place to find peace and quiet, an escape from troubles at home and even a sympathetic ear in Stokes and other library staff members. It makes computers and internet available to residents who might not otherwise have access to such luxuries.
Located in downtown Riverhead, directly across from the train station and the Salvation Army food pantry, the library is often visited by residents who are in need of assistance and support.
“You see people from all different walks of life here,” Stokes said. “People come in here and say things they would never go into Town Hall and talk about. You get to hear about their families, their loved ones, the things they’ve lost. You get to really understand the community, and to me, it’s a blessing.”
It was through her interactions with veterans at the library that Stokes was inspired to create the town’s Veterans Advisory Committee, which is providing needed services to local veterans. She has been able to use the library’s books in her weekly book club at the Suffolk County Jail, and this month she is even bringing the two causes together – her women’s empowerment group at the jail is currently writing out thank-you cards to about 150 veterans.
“I love people,” Stokes said today. “Whatever happens in our crazy world, I wish everybody could spend one day listening to the stories in there. Because it really puts everything into perspective.”
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