JACKSON Ruth Jinkiri warned that her Thursday afternoon young-adult reading class might be particularly lively and loud because they would be celebrating a 30th birthday with cupcakes and ice cream.
Jinkiri is known to give snacks at the autism resource center she started at the Eudora Welty Library in downtown Jackson in 2014. One young girl she works with one-on-one asks for what she calls "blue chips" during every session—Ruffles sour cream and cheddar chips with a blue banner at the top of the bag. Jinkiri sent her husband last week to buy several bags to keep on hand.
"I use food as an incentive," Jinkiri said.
During the class on Feb. 22, Jinkiri brought out three black Chick-fil-A containers filled with pennies, nickels and dimes, and two envelopes with dollar bills inside. The students passed around laminated cards with food items drawn on them, each with an accompanying cost. The sprinkling of parents and chaperones in the room frowned at the seemingly inflated prices—a canned lemon drink and a container of cheddar goldfish crackers cost $3 each.
The students had to take money out of the envelope and containers to pay for their "snack" to reinforce a lesson on counting change.
Brandon, a student in the class who wore a blue T-shirt, had to figure out how many dimes made 50 cents.
"Take your time," Jinkiri said, as she did each time someone got stuck or seemed confused. The room quieted with everyone waiting in anticipation and support.
"OK, I'll do it slowly," Brandon replied.
Jinkiri supports as many as 135 local families with 3-year-olds all the way up to 60-year-olds who are on the autism spectrum. Her center is on the first floor of Eudora Welty—the only floor that is currently open to the public because the roof leaks and the second floor has mold. Jinkiri said some of the families stopped coming to the center because they fear the mold could make their kids sick, even though it has not spread to the first floor.
The network of libraries overall need help. The Charles Tisdale Library has been closed since last April when the basement flooded with 3 feet of water, leaving black mold in its tracks and 42,000 annual visitors without a library. The Willie Morris Library also leaks, and someone overdosed in Eudora Welty last month.
Despite a seemingly grim reality, Jackson-Hinds Libraries Executive Director Patty Furr has hope for the Capital city's branches and the communities they serve, and she credits the work Jinkiri is doing as an example of a good library's mission.
"(There are) miracles happening in her autism center," Furr told the Jackson Free Press.
'Give Him that Time'
Kenneth, 13, came into the autism center on Feb. 22 with his mother Saundra Thomas who uses a cane because of a spinal-cord injury. He had on the Jackson Public Schools middle-school uniform—a navy polo and khaki pants. He kept his hands under the table and sat low in his chair but not to the point of slouching. Kenneth spoke with the encouragement of his mother in a low tone that was only slightly above a whisper. Jinkiri could hear him no matter where she was in the room.
"Ms. Ruth has really made a difference in our lives because now Kenneth is able to communicate a lot more," Saundra told the Jackson Free Press on Tuesday.
Last summer, Saundra had been going to other libraries to do research on children with autism and getting services through the public-school system because her son Kenneth is highly functioning and has Asperger's syndrome.
A "sweet" librarian with glasses low on her nose gave Jinkiri's number to Saundra and told her about the autism resource center. She remembers calling Jinkiri and reaching a "lady with a very distinct voice."
"Nobody has Ms. Ruth's voice but her," Saundra said. Jinkiri came to Jackson by way of Northern Nigeria—hence the distinct accent.
Jinkiri met with the Thomas family on a Saturday at the center, and although Kenneth was reluctant to speak to Jinkiri, the plants in the room were the kicker. Saundra grows plants at home and Kenneth had gotten used to tending to them.
Since going to Jinkiri's class, Saundra said her son's grades have improved, despite a brief fluctuation when he was being bullied. During the Thursday class, Kenneth spoke most when his mother suggested he share with the class the reason why he could not make it to the class the week before—the school bus never came.
"The bus drivers have other jobs," he said.
Saundra tends to encourage Kenneth to talk more, and she says Jinkiri often shoots her a look that means, "wait."
"When I'm with Ms. Ruth, she says, 'give him that time,'" Saundra said. "And I do give him that time, but I know it's inside him. Sometimes I can just feel what he's thinking, but he just hasn't projected it out yet."
In Mississippi, special education is in a tough spot, to say the least, with a teacher shortage in the system and many teachers coming through alternate-route programs rather than obtaining a four-year degree in education. Almost all of Jinkiri's students have been through JPS, and she feels they are not prepared.
"I think the literacy is not there," Jinkiri said. "And then transitioning, I think JPS is not preparing them for what comes next. ... They are not being prepared to be in the community."
Welty Won't Last
Furr attended a Jackson City Council meeting on
Jan. 18 at the invitation of Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote. She told the members that she would potentially like to see Eudora Welty move to another location, considering that building is prime real estate because of the new museums, and it is also currently falling apart.
"Long term, I don't think that you can let the building stay in the state it's in and not fix it and expect it to last another five or 10 years," Furr told the Jackson Free Press. "It's just not going to happen."
As a woman who likes a challenge in the workplace, Furr said she came to Jackson to revamp the library systems in 2014. Furr has a background in information technology, and she is proud to have helped mend the technology gap in the library. She said when she got there, the webpage had not been updated since 1998.
Furr takes the technology in the library very seriously—it's why she hates closing any branch.
"We might be the entity that helps somebody get a job," Furr said. "We might be the people who are able to help somebody get an online degree."
With 311,000 people who used computer services last year at Eudora Welty alone, 44 high-speed computers and the fastest connection at any library in the state running at 300 megabytes per second, Furr wants to help bridge Jackson's digital divide.
"A lot of people weren't born with a mouse in their hands," Furr said. "Some people are digital immigrants they have to come across the great divide into the online world...."
Furr and Jinkiri came into the Jackson-Hinds system around the same time four or so years ago, and since then Jinkiri has basked in the successes of getting a non-verbal child to identify the color yellow or Kenneth becoming more social.
"I will not trade it for anything," Jinkiri said of her work at the library.
Email city reporter Ko Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org.