Friends and Foundation

Why I Give: Amanda Vega-Mavec

I donate and volunteer for the Johnson County Library Foundation because libraries and books have always played an important role in my life. I want to help provide that opportunity for others. My first memory of a library is of the one from my grade school, where the librarian, Mrs. Sanchez, nurtured my love of reading and learning. She and my teachers realized that as long as I had a book in my hand, I was less likely to cause trouble. So, I always had a book in my hand. (And I was even allowed to shelve books as a reward!)

Those educators along with my parents also nurtured my desire to learn about all types of topics. No topic was off limits, but they created a safe opportunity for me to ask questions about and discuss any topic. This directly impacted my analytical and critical thinking skills. And, my ability to think for myself. I am so grateful they gave me these opportunities and think they should be available to every child.

Libraries serve many roles; I feel like I am always learning new things. For me, at this stage of my life, it’s about being a meeting place for the community. I go to the library for meetings for other groups I am involved with almost as much as I go to pick up books. Not too long ago we invited some family friends to join us for a library event. They ran into several friends, including a beloved staff member I also know well. In that moment the library was the mutual friend that brought us all together.

I am currently finishing Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Mind and on deck are Entre Guadalupe and Malinche: Tejanas in Literature and Art and Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age. I always have a “next up” pile of books going. I will even start carrying around my next book before I finish the one I’m reading.

Black & Veatch Support ‘Amplifies’ Library Services

It would be an understatement to say that the Library’s MakerSpace had humble origins.

Its original home was not much bigger than a closet, said Shelley O’Brien, executive director of the Johnson County Library Foundation. But now the area at the Central Resource Library serves almost as a branch within a branch — offering state-of-the-art capabilities like 3D printing and providing space where creators of all types mingle.

The upgraded surroundings have “really amplified the program and amplified what we can do,” O’Brien said, putting the Library on the cutting edge of the experiential learning that will define the library of the future. “This is not a trend,” she said. “This is not going away.”

And none of that would be possible without the more than $30,000 a year that Overland Park-based Black & Veatch provides as the sponsor of the MakerSpace, she said. The global design and engineering firm’s commitment to the Library extends to serving this year as the presenting sponsor of the library foundation’s annual fundraiser. 

As an international corporation, Black & Veatch has no shortage of potential causes to back, O’Brien said. “It means a lot to us for them to say they want to invest their philanthropic dollars into a local nonprofit like the Foundation, and a local organization like the Library.”

Outside support is critical to providing a range of services to patrons, and O’Brien said Black & Veatch’s financial commitments play a significant role in allowing the Library “to have innovation and creativity, and to provide the community with these great tools.”

There is perhaps no better spokesman for Black & Veatch and its commitment to the Library than Pete Barth, an Illinois native who moved here from Davenport, Iowa, in 2014 with his wife.

He is the company’s engineering partnerships leader and serves on the board of the Library foundation. Barth is also the son of a teacher who preached the value of reading and is an active patron of Olathe’s Indian Creek Library as the father of three kids ages 8 and under.

The parent in him loves that libraries now have playgrounds and cool indoor activities that excite kids to just be at the library as a first step to gaining a love of reading. He knows that is the case with his children.

In his professional role, Barth welcomes the opportunity for the company to support a free public resource that provides equitable access to all members of the community. Black & Veatch is also happy to help students cultivate an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Library Lets Loose provides essential funding for the extras the Library offers, O’Brien said, including the varied programming that keeps people coming back to the branches. Barth said Black & Veatch’s role as the presenting sponsor is a way to help “amplify the event and the importance of the library system in general.”

“I think it’s fair to say that the library is an integral part of every community,” he said. “We are just glad to be a part of it and help to support the growth of both the MakerSpace and the library infrastructure in Johnson County in general.

“We are proud of our community, we want to be a part of the community, want to be visible in the community, and want to give back to all those communities that support our professionals and our business.”

Barth was not exactly a bookworm as a teen, but it seems his mom’s prodding planted a seed for adulthood because reading is now a welcome stress relief. “It’s a good way for me to escape and displace,” he said. 

Foundation’s New Director Plans to “Build on the Excellence”

The Johnson County Library Foundation’s new executive director brings a wealth of fundraising and advocacy experience to the job. She also brings qualities that may be even more important: a boundless curiosity and a deep appreciation for libraries as part of the soul of a community. 

Shelley O’Brien started her new job March 6, succeeding Stephanie Stollsteimer, who retired. In her previous position as a fundraising consultant for the Northeast Kansas Library System, O’Brien championed libraries in this region and had already worked closely with Stollsteimer and board members as a facilitator to update the Foundation’s strategic plan.  

So O’Brien was familiar with how vibrant the Foundation already is, in its mission to help Johnson County Library build its collection, lifelong learning resources and programming beyond what taxpayer dollars provide. Her goal is to raise the Foundation’s profile even higher and to forge even greater partnerships throughout the community. 

“The Library and Foundation are excellent, and I want to build on that and bring more people into the fold,” she said. “We want to communicate more with the donors who support the Foundation about how we are investing their money. That to me is very important, showing the impact it has on Johnson County.” 

Growing up in Blue Springs, O’Brien loved going to her local library and became a voracious reader.  She enjoyed public speaking on the debate team in high school and at the University of Kansas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. 

After college she worked for the KU endowment and other organizations in Lawrence and Kansas City before she moved to Washington D.C. In the nation’s capital, she did fundraising for national advocacy non-profits, including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Recreation and Park Association. 

While in Washington, O’Brien was an enthusiastic library volunteer through the Junior League, and that helped launch her on a new career path. In 2018, she became the first fundraiser on the Prince George’s County Memorial Library system staff. At night and on weekends, she pursued a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University, graduating in December 2021.  

After years in Washington, O’Brien craved a return to the Kansas City area, so she was glad to accept the Northeast Kansas Library position in October 2021.  

Now at the Foundation, O’Brien is working on its signature event, Library Lets Loose, scheduled for September 23. O’Brien and the development department have many other ideas for the Foundation, including highlighting volunteer opportunities and expanding philanthropic and corporate connections. 

O’Brien also values how different libraries can work together for mutual benefit. To that end, she has a website, I Love My Kansas Library, that promotes library impacts on local economies throughout the state. 

O’Brien also loves sports. She served on the U.S. Olympics nominating committee for eight years and is always up for attending a sporting event. 

“I am not an athlete but I value sports and teamwork,” she said. “I learned so much about the importance of strong leadership and working together.”  

She’s a big fan of the Royals, Chiefs and the Kansas City Current women’s soccer team. “I am grateful that the Royals Charities support the Library Foundation and our children’s programs,” she said. “I hope we can work with all the KC sports teams in some way.” 

The new job seems full of possibilities. “I want Johnson County to have outstanding Libraries, where we see innovation taking place every day. That is thrilling to me,” O’Brien said. “I can see where parents would be so excited that their children and teenagers are getting to experience this. That fuels my work. That fuels me.” 

Talented Illustrator’s Portraits Celebrate Johnson County Librarians

Johnson County Library will soon be rolling out distinctive portraits of its County Librarians who have served since the 1950s. The artist is a recent arrival to the United States, and her work with the Library is in itself a story about the blessings of immigrant vitality, volunteerism and community connection. 

Katya Balakina grew up in Russia and until recently lived in Estonia, where she pursued a career as an illustrator. It was there that she met her husband, a Johnson County native, and the couple moved to Leawood in early 2022. 

Balakina didn’t know anyone in America except her husband’s family and was feeling isolated. But she knew that Libraries in Eastern Europe were great community hubs, and her husband encouraged her to visit the Leawood Pioneer branch. 

She quickly got a Library card and went online to check out Johnson County Library volunteer opportunities, which connected her to the Friends of Johnson County Library. Thus began a wonderful relationship that has been mutually beneficial for both the Library and Balakina. 

Community Relations Coordinator Christopher Leitch, who works closely with the Friends organization, attended an online meeting with Balakina and learned about her illustrator skills. He checked out her website and quickly recognized her talent. She produces hand-drawn digital images on an iPad, visually conveying ideas and information with a very creative, appealing technique. 

“I knew her style,” Leitch said. “It’s very lively and fun and bright and bold.” 

Leitch envisioned how Balakina’s whimsical drawings could focus attention on the Friends’ donation boxes, located in the branches to collect used books and other materials.    

“She produced a series of little illustrations we’ve been using on social media,” Leitch said. “They’re little line drawings and are just adorable.”  

Balakina was delighted to volunteer for the project. “It was super fun for me,” she said. “I felt like it was the perfect match.” 

She told Leitch that she loves doing portraits and was available for more assignments.  

About that time, Sean Casserley retired as County Librarian, succeeded by Tricia Suellentrop. The timing was right to begin celebrating the history of all seven County Librarians, dating back to Shirley Brother in 1956, followed by Mary Moore, Roy Fox, Mona Carmack and Donna Lauffer. Leitch conceived that a cohesive set of all seven portraits would be ideal. The Library commissioned the works and Balakina completed them late last year. 

Leitch said the Library was thrilled and felt Balakina had captured the look and distinguishing characteristics of each Librarian.  

“I would say she is a very imaginative and intelligent person and really easy to work with,” Leitch said. “She was so eager to bring our vision to life.” 

The images will appear on a variety of postcards, prints and other materials, helping to honor the Library’s leaders. 

Connecting with the Library has been a joy, Balakina said. In addition, at her first meeting with Friends of Johnson County Library representatives, she met another volunteer who was also a recent arrival to the U.S. They’ve become great friends. 

“I got a friend from the Friends,” Balakina said with a laugh. “We hit it off. I am very thankful to the Friends for that volunteering opportunity and for the fact I met a like-minded person.” 

Leitch said this is just one example of how Johnson County Library is blessed to be in a place with so many accomplished professionals, of so many nationalities, who share their gifts for the community’s benefit. 

“We are really lucky,” Leitch said. “This kind of talent presents itself to us with such regularity.” 

Submit Your Work for Volume 6!

We’ve been publishing Volume, a literary and arts notebook, for six years! Each Volume has plenty of room to scribble and doodle, plus beautiful artwork and writing from YOU, our patrons!

Our prompt for Volume 6
Whether it be fishing for compliments, fishers of men, or actual fishing for fish, tell us about the ways you cast your net, what you’re hoping to catch and the surprises along the way. Learn more and submit your writing or art »

Many of Johnson County Library’s writing programs have been supported by the Joan Berkley Writers Fund, which is administered by the Johnson County Library Foundation. The Berkley family started the fund to honor Joan Berkley, who was an avid reader and lover of literature. Bert Berkley has supported the fund since its inception in 2013 and we thought it would be fun to honor Bert along with Joan with a prompt all about his favorite thing: fishing. Need inspiration? Read about Bert’s passion for fly-fishing in “Anglers Journal” »

Library’s Volunteer Program Wins Prestigious Certification

Johnson County Library has received a prestigious national certification for best practices in volunteer management, following a rigorous process that helped make its excellent volunteer program even better.  

In late 2022, the Library’s volunteer program became Service Enterprise Certified by the Points of Light Foundation and ALIVE (Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement). Only 11 percent of nonprofits nationally achieve this certification, which focuses on 10 key areas of successful volunteer management. 

“At the end of the day, I think this provides a better experience for the volunteers, and I think it’s also about opening up our mindset to how we can utilize volunteers,” said Volunteer Services Coordinator Amber Bourek Slater. “I think about some of the new ways we are engaging volunteers.” 

County Librarian Patricia Suellentrop said the certification timing was ideal.  

“Our organization is redefining staff roles and updating goals for our next strategic plan,” Suellentrop said. “Service Enterprise is helping us see how skilled volunteers can support staff to serve our community in new ways.” 

In summer 2021, Johnson County Library was selected for the program through the Kansas Volunteer Commission. Bourek Slater participated in four months of training, joined by staffers Thomas Parks, Matt Hammes and Matt Morgan, who work with volunteers at various branches. The Library received coaching from Meg Pearson of the Kansas Volunteer Commission, to develop and implement an extensive volunteer program improvement plan. 

The results are already evident. The number of volunteers grew from 581 in 2021 to 790 in 2022 and the return on volunteer investment grew from $3.78 to $6.68 for every dollar invested in the volunteer program.  

“Our coach was ecstatic at how much the return on investment had increased,” Bourek Slater noted. 

The Library retained 107 volunteers from before COVID in March 2020. Many dedicated individuals have been with the organization for years. Teen outreach also grew to the point where 54% of volunteers are young people.  

Through the certification process, the Library improved its annual volunteer survey, created a detailed volunteer handbook, enhanced outreach in the branches with an informational brochure and developed new volunteer opportunities.  

Bourek Slater said the survey showed strong volunteer satisfaction. It also revealed the diversity of volunteer skills. For example, one person shared that he has voice-over experience, so he’ll narrate a new volunteer training video. 

Parks, the volunteer liaison at the Leawood branch, said the certification training was helpful.  

“Leawood is a very busy location and volunteers help complement what we are doing,” he said, adding that many volunteers are retirees who find great purpose in working at the Library. 

“When you are engaged with volunteers,” Parks said, “you get to see other perspectives and skills that volunteers bring to the Library. They bring enjoyment to the staff and other volunteers.” 

Bourek Slater said a few other Library systems nationwide have achieved this certification, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Boulder, Colorado. They have been a great resource in sharing the benefits of this work. 

The certification process helped identify the volunteer program’s strengths and areas needing improvement. Strengths include a database that allows the Library to recruit people and track volunteer hours. One area needing improvement was communication with the Library’s administrative leadership and Board, which is already happening.  

It all amounted to many small changes making a big difference for volunteers and the Library alike, Bourek Slater observed.  

“For the volunteers who are here,” she said, “if we’re engaging and we’re listening and we’re making this a meaningful experience for them that they want to be a part of, that’s great.” 

Bookmark Design Winner Now Introducing Daughter to Library

As a kindergartner in 1999, Mary Clow won Johnson County Library’s bookmark design contest for her age group, with the message “I like the Library.” 

Now married and mom to 1-year-old Isabella, Clow is having a wonderful time introducing her daughter to Johnson County Library.  

“More than 20 years later, I love getting to share the Library with my own daughter,” Clow wrote in an email to Library staff. “Isabella is a huge fan of our weekly trips to the Library and loves getting to pick books from the shelves herself. Thank you for all you do, and for sharing books with my family for over two decades.” 

That’s just the kind of communication from patrons that warms Librarians’ hearts.  

Clow grew up in Overland Park and Lenexa, where her mother took her and her sibling regularly on weekends to the Central or Oak Park branches.   

“We checked out books and movies,” Clow recalled. “Pretty early on, mom had to implement the rule that we could only check out as many books as we could carry. My favorite book as a kid was The Big Red Barn.”  

As an adult, she’s now enjoying reading that classic by Margaret Wise Brown to her daughter. 

She doesn’t have a vivid memory of creating the winning bookmark but knows her mother sought out those types of fun Library activities that she could do at home. She remembers there was a reception for the winners. She now flexes her creative muscles with cross-stitching and other crafts.  

Clow became an avid reader and remains a fan of young adult fiction, especially books by John Green and Maureen Johnson. She graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School and got a degree in elementary education from Pittsburg State University. 

Even during college, Clow stayed connected to Johnson County Library during summers. She was a nanny one summer for a family with four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and six months.  

“The Library programs were great for them, just finding free stuff to do,” she recalled. She took the youngest to Storytimes while the older children found books and enrichment. The family lived closest to the Leawood branch, but Clow said they checked the calendar for different programs and visited a number of branches. 

“There were MakerSpace activities that the older kids really liked,” she said. “It was really great to have stuff for that whole range of ages. I also did the summer reading program with them.” 

After college graduation she worked as a substitute teacher for several Johnson County school districts before she was hired as a math teacher at Westridge Middle School in Overland Park.  

She taught math for a year but realized it wasn’t the best fit. Since 2017, she’s worked as the director of children’s ministries for Lenexa United Methodist Church, and that’s been very fulfilling.  

She and her husband Nicholas, a civil engineer at Black and Veatch, live in Shawnee, where they frequent the Shawnee Library branch. They regularly use the Library app and often put books on hold. 

Isabella is just getting to the age where she is aware of books being read to her, and Clow looks forward to helping her learn to appreciate books and reading.   

“I was definitely raised going to the Library,” Clow says, adding that it’s gratifying to see that tradition extend to a new generation.  

And who knows? Maybe in a few years, Isabella will follow mom’s example and also enter the bookmark contest with her own creative design.