Matt Driscoll

How one local librarian made all the difference to a 6-year-old recovering from a concussion

Jackie Blackshaw and her son, Tony, visit the South Hill Library recently.
Jackie Blackshaw and her son, Tony, visit the South Hill Library recently.

Lisa Cipolla has a saying: “Better living through story time.”

Which makes sense, since Cipolla is a youth-services librarian at the South Hill Library. A big part of her job is wrangling and entertaining young ones during the Pierce County library’s regularly scheduled drop-in story times for toddlers and preschoolers.

For Jackie Blackshaw, and her 6-year-old son, Tony, Cipolla’s saying has certainly proven true.

In fact, without Cipolla and her story times, Blackshaw says she isn’t sure where Tony would be today.

I traveled to the South Hill Library this week to see Cipolla in action. I also met Tony, whose mom credits much of his recovery from a severe concussion to Cipolla’s care and attention.

At the risk of spoiling the ending to this tale early, what I witnessed was a testament to the influence one librarian can have on the life of a child.

It sounds a little corny, but Blackshaw insists that it’s true. That’s why she invited me there.

Tony’s story is a complicated one. Cipolla, who began her career a decade ago in Hoquiam and has worked at the South Hill library for the last three years, first met him a few years ago, before Tony started kindergarten. The South Hill branch is Tony’s neighborhood library, and Blackshaw started taking him there for what she calls “pre-education opportunities.” Cipolla describes the boy she came to know as a “very caring” kid, with “huge, off-the-charts empathy.”

Tony is precocious, with thick rimmed glasses and a sly grin that’s not easy for strangers to earn. His smarts are immediately apparent. He can recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, read books above his grade level and use sign language to communicate with his mom.

But he’s has faced no shortage of challenges in his life. A back condition effects his balance, and his speech can sometimes be hard to decipher.

Tony’s life — and his mom’s — really was turned upside down in January. That’s when Blackshaw says her son, then in kindergarten, was involved in a playground accident that left him with a severe concussion, two black eyes and a broken pair of glasses. He spent a full day in the hospital as a result.

The injury changed everything.

Tony’s mood and demeanor changed drastically, Blackshaw says. He was withdrawn and tired. Sometimes, he would cower and shake, especially around large groups of people.

His recovery — which is ongoing — first involved weeks of solitude, with blinds drawn, lights turned low and voices held to a whisper.

Forced to all but abandon her career as a therapeutic massage therapist, including plying her trade here at The News Tribune, Blackshaw began staying home with her son and eventually decided to home-school him.

Once Tony was up for it, Blackshaw began taking the boy back to the library, where he was reunited with Cipolla.

He would shake. There would be people coming in, and he would start shaking and having a bit of a panic attack. … You could tell it was really hard for him to be out.

Youth Services Librarian Lisa Cipolla recalls Tony’s return to the South Hill Library

Story time with a large group of kids was still out of the question, though. So Blackshaw utilized the library’s “book a librarian” program to set up one-on-one story times with Cipolla.

Though Cipolla says the book a librarian program is typically used by older library patrons who need help with things like research, using new technology, or other library-related tasks, she quickly accommodated Tony, finding a windowless room where the lights could be dimmed to work with him. Blackshaw says Cipolla was one of the few people her son trusted at the time, so the choice was obvious.

Cipolla recalls being taken aback by the changes in Tony since the last time she’d seen him.

“He would shake. There would be people coming in, and he would start shaking and having a bit of a panic attack,” Cipolla says. “He was never really super outgoing, but he wasn’t an isolationist either. You could tell it was really hard for him to be out.”

That was nearly six months ago, and based on what I saw this week, the progress Tony has made is nothing short of remarkable. To Cipolla, it’s a credit to the dedication of his mom. But to Blackshaw, it’s also a testament to a librarian who went above and beyond.

“That just goes to show what kind of person she is, and how dedicated she is to the kids,” Blackshaw says.

On Tuesday morning, a group of roughly 30 preschool-aged kids crammed into the story-time room at the South Hill Library. A sign states there’s a maximum occupancy of 137, but it’s hard to believe it applies to kids. The room swarmed with laughter and rambunctious curiosity, as Cipolla led the children through activities, songs, and — yes — a story or two.

And there was Tony, right up front.

“I feel like I’m just doing my job,” the librarian says. “I know I’m not supposed to have favorites … but he’s one of my special ones.

“That’s kind of the awesome-sauce part of being a librarian. It’s an amazing feeling to know you’re really helping.”