Tech-savvy teens teach adults at Cook Park Library in Libertyville

Eager to keep in touch with her family in Florida, Karen Brady needed to master a device that would allow her to Skype with her three grandkids.

But the Libertyville 75-year-old says she’s a “first-grader” when it comes to learning the Kindle.

Enter her tech-savvy tutor: a 14-year-old.

“You guys know so much it’s unreal,” said Brady, admiring the blue-shirted teenagers delivering one-on-one tech tutorials for adults at the Cook Park Library in Libertyville.

The new program joins a growing list of libraries pairing young volunteers with seniors.

They must bridge more than generational gaps. Teens who have grown up in the digital age have to translate their skills into clear, concise lessons.

“It’s really about taking your time and not doing it for them,” says Vernon Hills 14-year-old Hirsch Nangia who showed Brady how to download free books on her e-reader.

Avoiding the jibber-jabber could be a challenge for Nangia, a poised teenager who decided to start coding this summer.

“I’ve learned that I have to sometimes be a little bit more patient with people that don’t always know what I know,” said Nangia, who will be a freshman at Vernon Hills High School. “It’s hard to hold your tongue sometimes and just keep on going through it.”

While seniors develop digital literacy, teens can build confidence and interpersonal skills, says Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association.

“Its gives them a sense of purpose and community that they’re giving back,” Yoke said.

The group is a division of the Chicago-based American Library Association. Every March, the national organization equips libraries with resources to set up similar programs during Teen Tech Week.

“Another bonus is that teens get to interact with these seniors, and they can be positive role models for the teens,” Yoke said. “It’s a welcoming environment. It’s informal.”

The Cook Park volunteers received basic training to prepare them for the drop-in sessions every Thursday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Even if adults initially stump them, teens are so digitally adept they can find a solution on the spot.

“They can look at something and figure it out,” said Ellen Jennings, young adult services coordinator. “The kids know how to do that.”

The former teacher began working at the library 10 years ago when email was a more of a novelty, especially for seniors.

The Libertyville woman wanted to launch the program after she was flooded with tech questions from patrons at the reference desk in recent years.

While the library prides itself on personal attention, Jennings said, reference librarians struggle to find the time to sit down with one patron for 20 to 30 minutes to explain computer programs or social media in addition to their regular responsibilities.

Jennings recruited three teens during a recent shift that saw one woman asking how to scan a document and another learning how to manage her new email account.

“I love it when that light bulb moment comes on,” Jennings said. “That’s what you live for.”

A number of tech classes already are available at the library. But the teen program is more flexible than a rigid curriculum.

“This idea that you can just drop in and ask a random question that’s been troubling you or vexing you — I think that’s what’s so appealing about it,” spokeswoman Rebecca Ferguson said.

The library hopes to expand the program into the school year, when teenagers could be available Saturdays.

Both Ferguson and Jennings have seen connections sprout between generations.

“It’s a community-builder in addition to building that technology expertise in the public,” Ferguson said.

After her session, Brady reviewed helpful tips she jotted down in a notepad and played games on her e-reader.

“I think it’s nifty that the teens take time out of their summer activities to help us,” the library regular said. “I really appreciate it.”

Her tutorial also came with a personal perk: Brady can now navigate Skype to chat with her grandkids, 8, 10 and 12, face-to-face. Brady says she visits them at least once a year.

“This way, I can see them,” she said.

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