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In addition to books, today’s libraries offer a variety of opportunities and programs in your community

By Ernie Williamson / Special to The Bulletin

Tired of watching endless arguments on cable news? Want to make new friends? Looking to do something constructive? Want to feel uplifted?

I have a suggestion: Visit your local library. Don’t laugh. It worked for me.

While some institutions are struggling with changing demographics, many libraries are stepping up and dealing with the challenges presented by our diverse democracy. They aren’t your father’s libraries any more.

Libraries, such as the Pearland Westside Library I use, are reaching out to attract a cross-section of their communities. They are offering more than just books. They offer classes, clubs, lectures, arts & crafts and activities for children. And, because of their outreach programs, they are attracting fascinating people from all over the world.

Libraries have even attracted the attention of Hollywood. A new movie, “Public” featuring Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Gabrielle Union, examines how a social issue – homelessness – affects a library.

I started frequenting the library because it was an activity I could do in my wheelchair. It helped pass time. My visits now are more than that. I volunteer.

My deeper involvement started by happenstance. I was minding my own business one day when the man seated across the table moved into the chair next to me. He explained that he was from Jordan and wanted help reading English.

I was so impressed by his determination that I helped him several times over the next month. Each time he offered me something in return for my help. Once it was Turkish coffee. Another time it was to service my van. Another time he offered to repair my fence. I declined the offers, explaining that feeling useful again after seven years in a wheelchair was reward enough.

Weeks later, I again was minding my own business when another man approached and wanted to ask some questions. He was in medical school and wanted practice evaluating patients. He said I could pick from a list of symptoms and he would ask questions in order to determine a diagnosis.

I didn’t need to pick fake symptoms. I had real ones. I asked him to diagnose why I was in a wheelchair. After several minutes of questioning, he told me he thought I had Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I told him he was wrong but not to feel bad … that was also the initial diagnosis from my neurologist. The right answer would have been transverse myelitis, a rare disease most doctors have never seen.

Turns out the soon-to-be doctor was from Iraq. His story is inspiring. He had served as a translator for the U.S. military. He recalled how for safety reasons he had to wear civilian clothes going to and from work and only wore his U.S. military uniform while working in the relative safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

He came to this country alone, not knowing anyone. Now he is married, and both he and his wife are one year away from graduating from medical school. They studied together every day at the library.

I told Deidre Mears, Pearland Westside’s reference librarian, about my encounters and how the library seemed full of interesting people, each using the library to better themselves. She then told me about a project she was starting.

Next thing I know I am one of two people moderating a class at the library. It’s called “Talk Time,” and it’s a free weekly conversation group for adults who want to practice and improve their English, learn about the American culture and make friends with people from throughout the world.

So far, we have people from China, Venezuela, Turkey, Syria, Mexico, Colombia, Vietnam and Japan. They have different accents, different religions and different traditions.

But they have one thing in common: These people all love it here and want to learn more about our American culture and history.

If interested, we meet from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Thursdays at the Pearland Westside Library. Check us out.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)