Bellefonte Woman’s Club supports literacy and history

EMMA GOSALVEZ/THE EXPRESS Nancy Perkins, left, great niece of Anna Keichline, and Children’s Librarian Laura Sarge display the recently donated books in the children’s library at the Centre County Library in Bellefonte.

BELLEFONTE — The General Federation of Woman’s Clubs’ Bellefonte Woman’s Club is a staunch supporter of libraries and literacy, especially when it comes to youth empowerment.

Recently, the club made a donation of seven books, through part of a $250 Thrivent Financial grant, to children’s library at the Centre County Library in Bellefonte, one of the books which represented an historical figure who was born and lived in Bellefonte: Anna Keichline. Keichline (1889-1943) was Pennsylvania’s first registered female architect who designed several historic buildings in the area and was granted seven patents.

Keichline’s life and work is featured in a recent Anna M. Lewis book called “Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers.” The book, which is geared to a junior-high reading level, won a “Best STEM Book” award for 2017 from the National Science Teachers Association.

“As a nonprofit organization, we work with the budget that we’re given, and sometimes we can’t offer every single book that I would love to have in the library for our children,” said Laura Sarge, the children’s librarian at the Centre County Library. “So when we get an opportunity to accept a wonderful donation from a great organization, we jump on it.”

Currently, there about 16,000 books in the children’s library in Bellefonte, according to Sarge. The STEM book will prove especially important in aiding the library’s mission to empower young readers, as the book shows young readers the various career paths, work and challenges of 22 inspirational women.

“Anna’s life story is a fabulous narrative for reaching and empowering young readers,” Lewis told The Express. “These narratives about women who have been overlooked through the years are the stories that are empowering our young girls and young boys. Our children will be creating the future and they all have the power to build to great heights.”

Lewis said that one point she discusses in her book presentations is how STEM career fields help make the world a safer place, and men and women should equally work in these fields to ensure a safer environment for all. She pointed out that studies have shown that parents tend to be the main deterrent for young girls who are interested in pursuing a STEM career.

“Parents perceive STEM fields more challenging for women – in regards to pay, advancement, respect, etc.,” Lewis explained. “But if we start changing perceptions about STEM fields, then we will hopefully have all our children working in those fields.”

According to Laura Sarge, who works as the children’s librarian at the Centre County Library, it is important to have these resources to support an early interest in career fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

“For me, I’m anti-censorship, so if a kid walks in and they want whatever book they want to take off the shelf, they will,” Sarge said. “But I might steer them in the direction of a book like that or some of the other books that were donated that focus on that same theme of just empowering these young women to find their place and spread their wings.”

Another individual who is particularly thrilled to introduce children to more STEM resources is none other than Keichline’s great niece, Nancy Perkins, of Bellefonte.

“One of my goals has always been to make her more well-known because I was so fascinated with her story,” Perkins said.

Over the years, Perkins has done a lot of research into her great aunt, who inspired her own career. Perkins graduated with a degree in industrial design from the University of Illinois in 1972 and has 22 of her own patents. In the late 1970s, Perkins began the journey into exploring her great aunt’s life and work.

Most recently, Perkins received the opportunity to portray her famous relative at Bellefonte Victorian Christmas’ first-ever “History on Wheels” bus tour, which was made possible thanks to the Bellefonte Woman’s Club. For the tour, which made several stops at historical places in downtown Bellefonte, Perkins got to talk about Keichline’s life and work as though she was Keichline herself, which was a whole new experience for Perkins.

Perkins said she also touched on the woman’s suffrage march that her great aunt led in the streets of Bellefonte in 1913.

“It was kind of fun for me to pretend that I noticed the people on the sidewalk with their arms folded in disgust, and then I said, ‘But who would really want a client who didn’t believe in women’s equality?'”

The tour, which proved successful, will come back again for the 2018 Bellefonte Victorian Christmas, with some changes to script and characters, Justice said. The other part of the Thrivent grant that was used for the books went toward the cost of the tour scripts. Copies of “Women of Steel and Stone” were also presented to Tami Schuster and Millie Ragosta, who shared their historic Bellefonte homes during last year’s tour.

In addition to having famous historical figures, there will also be new characters that represent the “common person” and what they have contributed to Bellefonte. Perkins said she may reprise her role as Keichline as well.

The Bellefonte Woman’s Club’s support of the library goes back to the early beginnings of the library.

Since it was founded approximately 100 years ago, support of local libraries has been a big part of the club’s mission, according to club member Mary Kay Justice. Past member Edith Katz (1944-2015) was very instrumental in helping the Centre County Library get started. Today, there is the Edith Katz Large Print Book Fund to help the library with its large print collection.

Justice said the club makes book donations to the library every year and especially helps support the summer reading program and provides additional copies to the library for the community-wide annual Bellefonte READS program.

“I think that our library is an important part of our community,” Justice said. “The hours in the evening are wonderful, and I see lots of kids coming and going with their parents.”

The Bellefonte Woman’s Club consists of about 25 women, who help make sure not only the library, but several other organizations in the local community, receive additional funding to thrive.