Flenniken Public Library filled with childish glee on Tuesday, for the first session of the new season’s Story Time with Miss Norma series. Each of the 17 children in attendance were greeted by name and with a hug.
“She just lives for this,” Pam Ozohonish said of her granddaughter, Charli, 3. “She thinks it is school, and Miss Norma is just a great teacher.”
Norma Kelley of Carmichaels has become synonymous with this and the library’s other children’s programs. Known by her pupils as Miss Norma, she joined the library’s staff in 2007 and immediately set sights on her passion: educating children.
She started off as front desk staff and gradually took on more responsibility throughout the years. According to Nicole Mitchell, Flenniken’s director, Kelley’s predecessor left the position in 2014 and Kelley has been the children’s librarian since.
“Young children are capable of learning a lot more than we think they are, and it’s never too young to start with them,” Kelley said. “I’m a firm believer that we should be reading to the babies. I don’t think it’s ever too early.”
A woman of her word, Kelley leads story time sessions every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon for children from 3 to 5 years old. Every Friday from 11 a.m. to noon, she leads toddler times for those up to 3 years old. On average, she works with 15 children per session and said there is no set class size, but last year around 20 children were enrolled in each session and that is how large she likes to go.
Since Kelley took over, the children’s programs have expanded in scope.
“Over the years, we’ve developed more, rather than just a story time where they listen to a story, to building the literacy skills,” Kelley said. “Having taught preschool and kindergarten and first grade, I have a feeling for what they need when they go to school and that’s what I try to bring into the program.”
In addition to reading stories, these sessions consist of songs, instruments, science experiments, art, interactive nursery rhymes, practicing holidays, numbers and letters and basic literacy skills.
Kelley focuses on teaching skills that improve fine motor control and lead up to reading and writing, such as coloring and painting. Kelley said as she reads, she encourages the children to engage in the story by repeating phrases and using visuals.
“We have children that come in that are so shy and haven’t been around other children very much, and I love seeing them pick up those skills,” Kelley said. “They are just so eager to learn and soak up everything like a sponge. When I retired from teaching, I didn’t want to give it up entirely.”
Kelley started teaching in 1960 and retired in 2007 with an extensive résumé marked with schools in Greene, Allegheny and York counties.
She’s taught and subbed preschool, kindergarten, middle school and reading courses at multiple public and private schools including Carmichaels Area Elementary Center, and two Greene County Christian schools, which have since closed: Jacobs Creek and Mount Mariah. She was also principal at Mount Mariah.
Elizabeth Klimek, one of Miss Norma’s former kindergarten students, now brings her daughter Sophie to story times.
“That’s the real joy,” Kelley said of watching families grow over the years.
Twice a month during the school year, Kelley also facilitates elementary book club and provides tutoring as the need arises.
When she isn’t working with Flenniken’s young visitors, Kelley handles front desk work like fingerprinting, memorial books, interlibrary loans and processing the books to get them ready for the shelves. Once a month, she meets with senior residents at The Arbors, which offers affordable housing to Carmichaels residents.
“I’m here at the library 20 hours a week ordinarily, and I do a lot of prep for the story times at home as well,” she said. “That suits me just fine because I really enjoy working with these children.”
She has encouraged reading so much that many of Flenniken’s children have library cards of their own, even the 2- and 3-year-olds, Kelley said. She enjoys interacting with them while she works her front desk shifts.
“It is a heartwarming experience to see them come up to the desk with their little bag and their library card,” Kelley said.
Kelley loves working with kids as much today as she did on her first day of teaching, and has no plans of slowing down any time soon.
“I’m still eager to continue the program. As long as my health stays good, I intend to stay,” she said. “I enjoy doing it, but I want them to benefit as well. That’s my purpose.”