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The library is so much more than some old building where you go to check out books.

You can do research there. You can read a newspaper there. You can engage in a wide assortment of educational and entertaining activities.

It’s just a really cool place — even more so now that it’s a “cooling center.”

The concept is a local collaboration between Lebanon County Christian Ministries (LCCM), the Lutheran Cooperative, the Lebanon County Coalition to End Homelessness and, of course, the Lebanon Community Library.

The idea is to provide a place for people to go to beat the summer heat.

“Too often, we take being cool for granted,” said Bryan Smith, LCCM’s Executive Director. “This is an example of how organizations can collaborate to serve the community. There’s no banner. No name recognition. It’s just a way for people in need to get a breath of fresh air and a drink of water. We’re doing it collaboratively.

“With the library being the site, it takes away the need of saying ‘the cooling center is open,’” continued Smith. “When a heat advisory kicks in, that’s when we would open the cooling center. It’s based on a combination of temperature, humidity and the ‘feels like.’ We also wanted to promote the library as a place to go.”

Certainly, these times of COVID-19 that we are living in have made managing the summer heat more challenging for those in need.

Read more: [Library Letter] Lebanon County Libraries here for the community in time of need

It used to be that people could utilize places like the library, Lebanon County Christian Ministries’ lobby, the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA and local churches as refuges from the heat. But now, many of those organizations have limited their hours and access.

“It’s not something that’s necessarily new,” said Smith, who also sits on the board of the Lebanon Community Library. “We’ve had discussions with the Lebanon County End Homelessness coalition about similar things in the winter, a warming center. Typically, LCCM’s lobby has been open for people to hang out there, but we haven’t been able to do that because of the COVID-19 situation. Our thought was, ‘Is there a church building or some place we can use, and staff it with volunteers?’ We did an informal survey at the [LCCM’s] free noon meal, and what we found out was, ‘Yeah, we could use something like that.’”

Read More: Commissioners discuss struggle for homeless, congratulated on re-election

“The library is a community center,” said Michelle Hawk, the director of the Lebanon Community Library. “It’s a place to gather. It’s much more than a place to get a book. In many ways, it was already going on at the library, and in the winter, people would come in to get warm. It’s like business as usual for us.”

Library director Michelle Hawk. (Falk)

Shelter-seeking visitors to the Lebanon Community Library, which is situated at 125 North Seventh Street in the city, are being asked to limit their stays to 30 minutes, and bottles of water will be made available upon request. Hawk said that since the Lebanon Community Library has re-opened, it has not even approached the limitations for gatherings under Gov. Tom Wolf’s ‘green phase.’

Read more: [Library Letter] Lebanon County Libraries’ long and winding road to being open

“Heat and hydration can be very lethal, very quickly,” said Smith. “One of the things we’ve talked about is a ‘heat island.’ In the city, there’s less shade and more macadam. It can create a ‘heat island.’ Add to that inappropriate hydration and you can have a dangerous situation. We’re really trying to focus on those two birds at the library, and reading just naturally gives you something to do.”

“Our employees will bring you a bottle of water,” said Hawk. “It doesn’t take long to hand out a bottle of water. Everybody has to abide by the same guidelines. Everyone has to wear a mask. You shouldn’t come if you’re sick, and we’re asking people to limit their stays to 30 minutes. That’s the suggested time limit for everyone.”

Certainly, the Lebanon Library’s location at Seventh and Willow Streets downtown makes it an ideal and central location for the cooling center. It’s easily accessed by foot or motor vehicle.

“One of the questions we had on our survey was, ‘Do you have transportation?’ or ‘Are you willing to walk and get sweaty to get cool?” said Smith. “This is about restrictions coming from COVID-19. It’s changing the way we think about those in need in our community. It’s more than just ‘wear your mask in public and social distance.’ When you’re just trying to meet basic needs, it has this trickle-down effect. This is part of it.

“For all of us, when our basic needs are being met, it’s very easy not to think of these things,” added Smith. “But we have to be thinking of our neighbors and checking on them.”


“It’s within walking distance of a lot of things and it’s right across the street from the bus stop,” said Hawk of the library’s location. “When Bryan contacted me and asked if we could host the cooling center, I thought there might be other locations involved. But it doesn’t look like that is going to happen”

In a much different way, the need for a cooling center again brings to light Lebanon’s homeless problems.

Lebanon County Christian Ministries is in its fourth year of operating its Fresh Start emergency shelter program, geared towards helping homeless families. Smith said that in 2019, the program serviced about 130 individuals, or about 15 guests per night.

But the cooling center is designed to help more than just the local homeless.

“It’s bigger than just the homeless,” said Smith. “It’s for all people experiencing shelter difficulties. It’s for people who live in a single room and don’t have an air conditioner. Somebody may have an air-conditioning unit, but during the peak of the heat, it can’t keep up. It’s that noon-to-four p.m. period in the summer that we’re concerned about. We’re really talking about many different segments of people who can benefit from this.”

“It’s just that public area of the library,” said Hawk. “We have all that open space, and it’s air-conditioned. There’s no reason people can’t come in and cool off. We’re not doing anything special. We’re reminding people they can come to the library and cool off. It’s part of what we do as a public library.”

And certainly, checking out a book is encouraged, as well.

Do you know a Lebanon County organization with an interesting story to share? Give us advice on what to feature next!

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An earlier version of this article identified the director of the Lebanon Community Library as Melissa Hawk, not Michelle Hawk. We sincerely regret the error.

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...


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