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Hired to help: St. Paul Public Library social worker assists patrons in need

Ruby Rivera gets to combine her passion for libraries with her desire to roll up her sleeves and help people navigate life’s toughest moments.

Ruby Rivera
Ruby Rivera: “I love public libraries. When I heard about this position I thought, ‘This sounds amazing, almost too good to be true.’ It was something I knew I really wanted to do.”
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

Even though she has more work than any one person can realistically handle, Ruby Rivera would be the first to say that she loves her job.

As the St. Paul Public Library’s (SPPL) first social worker hired to assist families struggling with a range of concerns, Rivera gets to combine her passion for libraries with her desire to roll up her sleeves and help people navigate life’s toughest moments.

A little over a year ago, SPPL announced plans to hire a social worker to support patrons at four of the system’s highest-need branches (Rondo, Sun Ray, Arlington Hills and Rice Street). When she saw the job posting, Rivera was beyond thrilled.

“My first job was working as a page for the New York Public Library,” she said. “I love public libraries. When I heard about this position I thought, ‘This sounds amazing, almost too good to be true.’ It was something I knew I really wanted to do.”

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That level of excitement and commitment is just what’s needed for the job, said Catherine Penkert, SPPL director.

“One thing we say a lot here is, ‘The needs of the community show up in the library,” she said. “The library is public space. Whatever is happening in the world shows up here.”

And because today’s world is so troubled, Penkert said, that is reflected in the complex needs of many library patrons. The system’s first social worker needed to be someone who was enthusiastic about stepping forward and offering help, and skilled at making the connections needed for concrete action.

Catherine Penkert
Catherine Penkert
It’s a big job. In recent years, library staff members have reported that patrons have begun to ask for help with problems that they were not been trained to address in library school.

Social concerns like poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness are on the rise, and they impact everyday life in the library, from interactions with other patrons to library safety to overcrowding in branch buildings, said Katrina Hartz Taylor, SPPL public services manager.

The idea was that a library-based social worker could provide yet another resource for patrons, a connection to mental health support and a guide for gaining access to appropriate social services. Organizers knew that one person couldn’t fix every problem, but it would be a start.

Rivera, with her commitment to helping others, was the perfect match for the position, Taylor said: “She’s really good at connecting with people. They recognize that she understands where they’re coming from.”

Rivera’s position is full time, Monday to Friday. She has regular office hours in each of the four libraries one day a week. The position is supported by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation; on Fridays, Rivera usually works out of Wilder’s University Avenue office, meeting with her supervisor, completing paperwork and attending trainings.

Each of the four targeted libraries actually has enough work to keep one full-time social worker busy, Taylor said, but Rivera works hard to address as many individual patron needs as possible.

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She also consults with library employees so that they can offer help to patrons when she’s not available, and she tries to be flexible with her schedule so that she can respond quickly when a crisis arises at an individual branch.

“Ruby works five days a week,” Taylor said, “but the library is open seven days a week. That means that there are a lot of times when she’s not around.” The staff consultations help library workers feel like they can better address patron concerns when Rivera’s not there, she added: “We need to be able to support her work and support families and make the libraries a safe and welcoming environment.”

Rivera posts fliers listing her open hours at each library, but she often needs to respond to requests for assistance during her off hours.

“I try my best not to answer my phone during my home hours,” she said, “but I do feel like I need to make myself available.” When she sees that a call is coming from one of her libraries on Fridays or during the weekend, Rivera said she picks it up.

“They might say something like, ‘This is happening. We need your help to figure out what to do,’” Rivera said. “When that happens, I’ll do whatever I can to help out. It’s part of the job, and that’s who I am.”

Look for the helpers

There are people who define themselves as helpers. Rivera is one of them.

“This job is all about helping people right in the community and addressing their needs right where they are,” she said. “It’s a very unique position. It’s a good match for my skills and interests. It’s the kind of work that makes me feel energized.”

Rivera grew up in New York City but left in 2004 to study social work in at the University of North Dakota – Grand Forks. After earning her master’s degree, she eventually moved to Minnesota with her son, working in a variety of social service jobs, including as an Early Head Start home visitor and as a Ramsey County social worker.

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She said she finds particular satisfaction in her library job because she gets to provide hands-on help to patrons who just walk in looking for resources.

“I really love jumping in and helping people where they are at,” she said. A public library is a central gathering space that attracts people from all backgrounds. “There are a lot of people who come into a library and need help. I find it incredibly satisfying to be able to help make things better right then and there.”

When she’s helping, Rivera likes to build a personal connection.

“I don’t just want to give someone a phone number and say, ‘This is who you need to call,’” she said. “I want to say, ‘Come in. Sit down. Why don’t you and I call right now?’ Some people are like, ‘You could do that for me? Great.’ It’s that extra helping hand that people need and appreciate.”

Take the woman who came into the Arlington Hills branch looking for help fleeing her abusive partner.

“She told me,” Rivera recalled, “‘I need to get out of this situation. I don’t know what to do. I’m from out of state and I don’t have any family here.’” Rivera jumped into social-worker mode: “We helped her find a place in a shelter and get out of the situation that she was in,” she said. “The shelter people even sent a cab over to pick her up. I stood with her. The staff and I got her some snacks. Then the staff collaborated to get her a bus card.”

If the branch hadn’t had a social worker on duty, librarians might not have known how to help the woman beyond providing shelter phone numbers. Because Rivera understands the system, she was able to get the woman the help she needed right away.

“I like being able to help a person navigate the system and put services in place for them,” she said.

Library staff appreciate Rivera’s commitment to patrons. “When we have an issue where we just don’t know what to do, we call her and she helps,” Taylor said. “Maybe something happens in one of the libraries and we don’t know how to follow up. Ruby helps us work through different strategies, tools and resources.”

Support system

Though she works independently much of the time, Rivera said she appreciates her ties to Wilder. “It helps to have colleagues and a supervisor that I can turn to with questions,” she said.

Many of the library patrons Rivera serves struggle with mental illness. She often helps connect to Wilder, explaining the program and the services it offers.

“I can be that middle person and help people understand what it means to have therapy, to walk through the process, help them fill out the referral form and let them know that someone will call them in a day or two,” she said. “I help bridge that gap to services.”

Rivera doesn’t always refer library visitors to Wilder. Sometimes she ends up being the one who provides mental health support and services to patrons.

“A lot of people like to just come and talk to me,” she said. “They don’t have to give me a whole lot of personal information. I don’t even need to know their name, really. They can just come in and say, ‘I’m having difficult time with whatever and one of the staff suggested that you might be able to help.’ I’m happy to do that.”

Rivera has discovered that many of the people she sees prefer this nontraditional approach to mental health care.

“I think this it helps people feel comfortable, because a lot of cultures have a stigma around mental health services, I can help with some of that because I am a person of color. I can say, ‘I know what that’s like. I grew up with the same sort of family where we didn’t seek mental health services.’ People appreciate that level of understanding.”

A good example is a man who visits Rivera nearly every week. The two talk about his life and work to find solutions to his problems. “This gentleman calls it ‘visiting,’” Rivera said.

Rivera is trained to do short-term counseling, so she refers any patron in need of more complex services to Wilder. “I don’t do any diagnosing or assessing,” she explained. “If an individual needs something further than conversation, I would refer them to Wilder for those services. But if someone meets with me once and then asks, ‘Is it OK if I come back?’ I’ll say ‘yes.’ I’m focused on providing the support.”

Trauma sensitive

At the Arlington Hills library, Rivera doesn’t have an office. So when she’s not out in the reading room talking to visitors or out in her car bringing people to appointments, she sets up her laptop at a table in a sunny conference room near the front door.

“People find this space less intimidating,” she explained, smiling warmly. “It makes them feel more comfortable about talking to me when the setup feels a little more casual.”

Katrina Hartz Taylor

Katrina Hartz Taylor

Rivera’s welcoming approach is intentional, Taylor said; her role extends the library’s larger goal of becoming a trauma-sensitive organization. Many of the people the library serves, especially in the four branches Rivera frequents, have lived stressful, traumatic lives, she explained. When the social worker position was created, the intention was for it to support that work and help turn libraries into places where patrons feel safe and supported.

“We know there are people in our communities who have experienced high poverty and lots of immigration issues,” Taylor said. “They have gone through a lot of traumatic experiences. Our goal as a library is to learn how to be more sensitive to that and to learn how to work with people a little bit better.” Beyond supporting patrons, the social worker’s role is to help library workers learn about trauma-sensitive practices.

Penkert said that SPPL’s approach is part of a larger shift that St. Paul has taken under the administration of Mayor Melvin Carter. “It goes back to something that Mayor Carter once said,” she explained. “He asked, ‘What does it mean to be a city that works for everyone?’ At the library, working for everyone means that whatever the trauma a person has experienced in their lives, when they walk through our doors, library staff will work to be sensitive to their experiences and how it impacts other people around them. That changes how we interact with everyone.”

So far, Penkert said that the social worker project has been “a huge success,” but both she and Taylor believe that there is still much more that can be done.

“This is just a start,” Taylor said. “Ruby’s only been working here for six months. There are a lot more needs out there in the community. We won’t be able to meet all of them with just one person, but we knew we needed to start somewhere.”

‘I made a difference’

Some days Rivera measures her success one patron at a time.

Not so long ago, she helped a homeless teen register for high school. She’d met him in the Arlington Hills library, learned his story when he used a phone in her conference room office, and helped him fill out his enrollment paperwork.

In order to complete his registration, the teen needed someone to advocate for him at the school. “I said I was willing to do that,” Rivera said. She met him at the school and got him signed up for classes. It was a happy story, but Rivera couldn’t get that young man out of her head. She wondered how he was doing, whether he was still going to school, if he’d reunited with his family.

Not knowing if her efforts have paid off is one of the most frustrating things about her work.

“Once a person gets help they don’t call you anymore,” she said. “You wonder what happened to them.”

But then Rivera was on duty at the Rice Street branch library, and the teen walked in.

“I was so happy,” she said. “I’d been hoping that he was OK. He told me he reunited with Mom and was living with her over there now. He was still going to school and doing good.” The young man was visiting the library with a friend.

“He turned to her and said, ‘That’s the lady that got me into the school,’” Rivera recalled. “It felt great. I made a difference in his life. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”