Pickerington Public Library employee Grace Walker combines dedication to early reading and helping people with special needs -- and her tireless efforts have received statewide recognition.

Before Walker began working as a youth-services assistant at the Pickerington Public Library, she spent a decade in Miami County, helping people with autism and developmental disabilities enhance behaviors and life skills.

She'd also thought about working in libraries -- and shortly after moving to the Columbus area, the timing seemed right for a change.

"I'd always kind of wanted to work in a library," Walker said. "I always thought I'd do it when I retired, but then I thought, 'Why wait?' "

In December, Walker will celebrate her fifth anniversary working as a youth services assistant in the Pickerington library system.

Among the projects she's taken on during that time were initiatives to improve "story hours" for toddlers and children with special needs.

Likewise, she's run a book club for adults with developmental disabilities.

Her work has garnered the attention of the Ohio Library Council, a statewide professional association that represents the interests of Ohio's 251 public library systems, their trustees and staffs.

On Sept. 25, Walker will receive the Service Excellence Award during the library council's 2019 Convention and Expo at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati.

"Grace Walker is not content to establish a library program and consider it 'done,' " according to a library council Aug. 6 press release announcing her as the award-winner.

"She is always looking for ways to improve and bring even more people into the library.

"As the youth-services assistant at Pickerington Public Library, Walker recognized a need for a 'sensory storytime' for families. She thoroughly researched sensory issues, wrote and obtained a grant, and designed an entirely new class, called Sensory Stories and Play," the release said.

According to the library council, the program included dim lights, quiet music and fidget toys, plus it was held before the library opened to give families a comfortable place to explore the library.

"The program was such a success that Walker wanted to develop it further and reached out to a local autism organization," the release stated. "This collaboration has led to a curated selection of books, as well as additional resources for parents and caregivers at the library."

Additionally, the library council recognized Walker for leading a popular book club for adults with intellectual disabilities and assisting a project to establish a pollinator garden of native Ohio plants at the library.

"Walker is keenly aware of the needs and interests of community members and works tirelessly to share the library's resources with them," according to the release. "Her ability to welcome and draw people with specialized programming illustrates her commitment to providing excellent customer service to all."

Walker's recent work included writing grant applications that landed $4,000 in funding for the sensory storytimes and $500 for the pollinator garden.

Around the time she reaches her five-year anniversary with the library, she also expects to complete a master's degree in library and information science from Kent State University. The degree would enable her to make the transition to a full-time librarian role or a job in library management.

For now, she's content to help develop library programming, specifically that which reaches young children, as well as children, teens and adults with special needs.

"I actually get to merge my love of libraries and early literacy with my passion for serving people with disabilities," Walker said. "I have big plans for what I want to do.

"I want to circulate sensory toys or educational materials for in-home therapy tools. Sometimes, you need those extra resources that are really expensive. Why not have them available to check out from the library for free?"

Library Director Tony Howard said Walker has been instrumental in securing grants to enhance services to children on the autism spectrum and the main library's pollinator garden. He said she also led a recent project to create and circulate "nature backpacks" that aid learning as children and families explore nature.

Howard said Walker is "outstanding" at working with families and children, and she has "an excellent grasp on our mission and vision and works hard as part of our youth-services team to ensure our young customers' needs are met."

"It is an honor to have her here at Pickerington Public Library and serving our citizens," he said. "Receiving this award only highlights Grace's phenomenal performance and the value she adds to our community.

"Grace has been instrumental on several library initiatives, which is why I feel she was selected for this honor."

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