Woman's 2008 gift comes to life at West Allis Library

Published on: 4/16/2013

West Allis - On April 28, the West Allis Library will celebrate the generosity of the family of the late Amelia Heikkinen, who brought life and light to the children's section of the library.

The importance of the Heikkinens' $150,000 gift is impossible to put into words, said Library Director Michael Koszalka.

The library would have only been able to accomplish 10 to 15 percent of what it did with the donation, he said. But with it, "we'll be able to serve generations of students."

Shared by mother and daughter

That would please Amelia Heikkinen, said her daughter Kim, who grew up to be a children's librarian. It was Kim who actually made the generous donation in her mother's memory happen.

"My mom believed so much in the importance of books and reading, especially from birth," she said.

Amelia was ahead of her time in believing in reading to very young children and she read to Kim pretty much from the day she was born. Amelia herself loved to read and to take her children to the libraries in Milwaukee, where the family lived.

Connecting with West Allis

Amelia grew to love the West Allis Library through the stories Kim told from when she did internship for a master's degree. Specifically, Kim told both her folks about life in the children's library.

"She and dad liked the stories about what the kids would say and do," Kim said.

And she told them how West Allis folks appreciated their library.

"I saw how it was helping the community and how much the community loved the library and how much they used it," Kim said. "I thought it was lovely."

Although her mother and dad eventually came to live in West Allis, Amelia didn't get to the library much because of crippling arthritis.

"I wish I'd gotten to meet her," Koszalka said. But he described Kim as delightful.

"And she's a true librarian who loves libraries and is an advocate of everything libraries do and stand for," Koszalka said.

Amelia died in 2006 but Kim, one of three children, knew how her mother felt so warmly toward the West Allis Library and remembered how the children's section needed updating even back in 1997 when she did her internship.

She knew her mother would have smiled to know that she helped the library, Kim said.

"I think it's a wonderful thing because libraries are the first place budgets are cut and yet libraries in poor times are one of the major resources for the people," Kim said.

Now bright and lively

Because of the Heikkinen gift, Koszalka said the transformation of the children's section has been only slightly less than miraculous.

Little ones nestle in happily in the new family corner while mothers and fathers read to them.

And the children's reading room has been transformed literally from night to day.

"It used to be dark and dreary," he said. "It wasn't very welcoming."

"Now it's very warm and light-filled," he said.

The transformation came about by taking down the dark curtains to let the sun shine in and by painting over the dark walls with a bright color. A colorful and vibrant carpet added vitality to the décor and individual desks in warm oak tones were added for kids to work at.

And with updates to the audio visual systems, the room is used to show films.

"And that's only one room," Koszalka said.

The library also was able to recarpet the entire department to brighten it up, and increase the number of computers from five to 15.

Staff offices were redone and a desk was added upstairs for greater patron convenience, he said.

The library received the gift in 2008 but couldn't use it until it finished remodeling the library's first floor.

It wasn't until mid-2010 that the library could get to the children's section. Work was finally finished last fall. But library officials wanted to hold off on a celebration until spring and then hold it on the last Sunday the library will be open until October, Koszalka said.

The celebration will start with a 2 p.m. tribute to the Heikkinen family. Then well known artist, illustrator and author Lois Ehlert will sign posters of her art for display in the children's department.