Just two years ago Matt Reuter left his job as a third grade teacher in Goodview to serve in Afghanistan as an active member of the Air Force Reserve. At the time of his deployment, Minnesota had a law on the books that required teachers enrolled in the military to pay for the substitute teacher required in their absence. With Reuter's help, the requirement was removed from law in 2012.
Reuter had a role in changing Minnesota legislation, and he is now making changes in Winona too. In collaboration with the Winona County Historical Society and area PTAs, the Winona Public Library has created a space called “Connecting Military Families.”
The public space, an idea of Reuter’s, will give military families a place to stay connected with each other. Reuter’s friend Jennifer Weaver, assistant director at the Winona County Historical Society, first suggested the library as a location for the new program. A legacy grant from SELCO (Southeastern Libraries Cooperating) and community funds, combined with donations from public school PTAs and local businesses, helped pay for the new program. The grant gave the library the ability to purchase a camcorder and a laptop for a recording and listening station, as well as a new reading area with furniture and a rug woven with images of countries around the world. Users can mail items for free using supplies provided by the program. According to Lezlea Dahlke, youth services librarian, the other donations helped the library purchase books to go with the project, in subjects ranging from military branches, to countries around the world, to social-emotional books as well.
Although the main focus of the project is military families, it is open to the public. “It is available to all as a public space; we’re opening it up to help with any number of support issues,” Dahlke said. “Logistically it only made sense to house it as a multipurpose project because we aren’t flush with military families.” The area will be available for families and children dealing with death, divorce, or separation from a loved one, regardless of whether a family member is in the military.
Reuter spearheaded a move to provided a place for family members to communicate more easily based on his own experience of being away from his kids, Dahlke noted. “Matt has been integral in choosing some of the supplies and making book choices; when he found out he was going to Afghanistan, he showed his kids pictures of animals of the country, noting it made it easier for the kids to understand where Dad was,” Dahlke explained.
Reuter’s recommendations helped shape a new resource for the community of Winona, but Dahlke reminds residents that the library is a treasure trove of resources for all families.
The new program will open on September 24 with a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information on the public library, a listing of hours, or posting of upcoming events visit http://www.cityofwinona.com or the Winona Public Library Facebook page.