January 21, 2016

Processing Loss and Paying Tribute to One of My Heroes

Source: Debbie's FB Page
On December 21, 2015, a person I deeply admired, Debbie Alvarez, passed away.

I only met Debbie once, (the day after the picture to the right was taken), and yet I find myself thinking about her and missing her. How is it that we can miss someone that we didn't actually spend a lot of face time with? And how is it that someone can fill a space in your heart, when you primarily knew them through their words or their work?

As those questions relate to Debbie, it's because she offered her words as a gift to her readers, and she approached her life's work with passion, integrity, and love.

Debbie's work spoke for itself. She was the Teacher Librarian at Ridgewood Elementary School for 12 years before the Beaverton School District eliminated teacher librarians from every school due to a budget crisis. Instead of exercising her seniority and transferring into another role within the school district, Debbie followed her passion and took her gift for teaching and librarianship to Hong Kong.

I was invited for an author visit at Ridgewood Elementary in the spring of 2013, after Debbie had already moved to Hong Kong. Debbie's imprint on that school library was so lasting and so strong, I could still feel it even in her absence. The students were prepared for my visit; the teachers seized the opportunity to participate in the learning activities I presented; the library was a beautiful and welcoming multi-purpose space (it was being used for student-led yoga during lunchtime); there were active and engaged parent volunteers; and the library collection was still strong.

I remember sharing my observations with the folks I met and interacted with at Ridgewood, and I was told time and again that their longtime teacher librarian, Debbie Alvarez, had done everything within her power to position them to weather the current storm as well as possible. They also mentioned that they missed her dearly. That was the first time I'd heard Debbie Alvarez's name.

The next time I remember hearing Debbie's name was when I launched an intensive school library advocacy effort. It seemed that nearly everyone I met and interacted with was acquainted with Debbie and/or familiar with her work. Time and again folks said wonderful things about her. I remember thinking how much I wished I had met her before she moved to Hong Kong. And then, as if wishing it made it so, Debbie joined the School Library Advocacy Council and School Libraries Matter: Beaverton social media sites that our Beaverton-based advocacy team had established. That is when I began to experience first-hand what an amazing teacher, librarian and human she was.

Although Debbie was still in Hong Kong, she became an important resource for school library advocacy efforts in Beaverton. Like others, she shared articles and commentary that were relevant to our concerns. Uniquely, she had a fan base of past students, parents, and colleagues that she stayed in contact with and could reach out to as needed. Despite the miles that separated us, she seemed genuinely engaged.

I remember being floored when Debbie's father spoke up at a School District Budget Committee meeting (you can find his comments about 2-2 1/2 hours into the 3+ hour meeting). He gave some of the most compelling public testimony offered during the entire evening. He was moved to speak up about the issue because his daughter was passionate about her work, and her passion was contagious.

Debbie and I started corresponding soon after that meeting. We planned to meet up sometime after her planned return to the Beaverton area. We kept in touch while she applied and interviewed (via SKYPE) for jobs in Oregon, and I hoped upon hope that she would be selected for one of the newly created LITT positions in Beaverton.

My hopes were realized when Debbie was hired at McKay Elementary, one of 15 schools that were chosen to pilot the district's Future Ready initiative (and one of ten schools that were participating in an active Future Ready collaboration). I literally cried happy tears when I discovered that Debbie had been asked to present an educational session for classroom teachers at our school district's summer inservice. The program she presented was on the topic of reading engagement, a critical component of Strong School Libraries. I felt relieved and reassured that Debbie was at the "Future Ready" table, because I knew that she would give voice to the importance of books, the importance of story, and the important role of a teacher and a librarian in helping young readers find their way in a sea of information.

Source: Debbie's FB Page
I finally had the pleasure of meeting Debbie in person this past October at the Oregon Association for School Libraries conference. She asked me to sign a book for her, we ate lunch together, she asked to snap a photo of us together, and she attended my session on Creating Picture Books with Kids. I remember being a tad bit intimidated when I found out she was planning to attend my session, because I didn't know what I could share that she wouldn't already know. I was soon put completely at ease as I saw her go into full-on learning mode. She listened to me intently. She took notes. She asked good questions. And she participated actively, sharing specific ideas about how she planned to incorporate what she had learned into her elementary school. I felt so relevant and so alive sharing space and time with her.

I had a similar reaction when I realized that Debbie had mentioned a couple of my books on, "It's Monday, What are You Reading?," one of her regular blog features. If you want to know how to make an author feel like a rock star, consider Debbie an excellent role model.

I looked forward to when Debbie and I might meet again, hopefully in an environment that was less distracting and stressful than a professional conference, but sadly, that was not to be. Debbie left this earth much too soon.

Prior to Debbie's passing, I would often think of her and wonder how she was doing in terms of her health and well being. I made a point to read her blog, Life's Journey, Interrupted, where she honestly and poignantly chronicled her experiences with cancer, and I kept up on the other aspects of her life via Facebook.

Now that she has passed, I find myself thinking about her life and the gifts that she gave to those of use who knew her. Here are a few examples of the gifts Debbie's life brought to me personally:

Sisterly Love: I experienced so much joy in the love that Debbie shared with her sister, Rachel Ann. There were times that I would be prompted to reach out to and connect with my own sister because of a Facebook post or blog entry to or from Debbie.

Connections to Other Positive People: Because of my connection to Debbie, I've been introduced to many other fantastic humans. Humans that share my love for learning and my love for books. One of those humans is Rachel Ann. I have found her blog enjoyable and worthwhile reading, and reading it has also given me an ongoing sense of connection to Debbie.

Book Recommendations: I continue to revel in the book recommendations offered by Debbie. She was so organized and on top of things that she had book reviews and blog posts queued up well after her passing. Her words continued to flow as recently as this past weekend.  I don't want her book recommendations to ever end.

A Living Reminder to Engage Fully in My Life, Every Day and at Every Opportunity: I was amazed by Debbie's strength and her will to live--both to keep living and to live fully while she was alive. I enjoyed reading about her adventures on the Life Updates section of her blog. Debbie seized the opportunities that were presented to her, and she made other opportunities happen.  She engaged with her friends, family, and colleagues, as well as the community around her. When I learned that Debbie would be not only attending the OASL Conference, but also presenting at it (and this after attending a required inservice day with her school district), I was initially befuddled at why she would take on these added activities during such a stressful and challenging time in her life. After spending just a little bit of face time with her, I could quickly intuit that given the choice, Debbie would engage in every life experience available to her vs. sitting on the sidelines. Given the circumstances of how invasive the cancer had become, I don't know how she did it, and I doubt I possess her strength or perserverence. What I do know is that living as fully as Debbie lived has become my stretch goal.

I am not alone in my admiration for Debbie. A quick google or Twitter search will yield many heartfelt tributes. You can click here, or here for a couple of examples. There are also several book drives being organized in her honor. Here are some that I'm aware of:

Titlewish to benefit McKay Elementary School (deadline, February 14, 2016).

JustGiving to benefit students in Hong Kong (they have officially reached their goal, but I think they are still accepting donations).

Book Drive being coordinated as a Facebook Event (ends January 27, 2016).

Annie Bloom's Books is offering book discounts and accepting donations through January 31, 2016 (call or email the store for info, or reach out to author @RosanneParry, who helped coordinate and who can share a special bookplate created by author/illustrator Victoria Jamieson).

I am sad that I will not have the opportunity to get to know Debbie better than I did, but I am grateful for the times and ways in which our paths crossed.

I will close with a quote from Debbie's Blog:

"In my opinion, books are the best accessory." Debbie Alvarez, The Styling Librarian

I will miss you, Debbie Alvarez. I already do.