With a network of Little Free Libraries around town, this Sanford Police Officer is on a mission to put books in the hands of the young boys and girls he serves
Sanford Police Officer Michael Hernandez knows just how empowering books can be for kids.
Officer Hernandez, who started the Police Department’s own Little Free Library program, did not speak a word of English when his family moved to the United States from Puerto Rico while he was in the first grade.
“I came here without any tools to succeed,” Officer Hernandez says.
That changed in elementary school when young Michael fell in love with books, which helped him acquire the language skills he needed to thrive.
Now the Community Redevelopment Area Officer is doing all he can to expand his Little Free Library program and get donated books into the hands of Sanford children.
The first library he helped build, a modified newspaper vending machine, opened in the lobby of Sanford Police headquarters in the spring of 2018. Like all Little Free Libraries that dot cities and towns across America, the box allows kids to take and/or leave a book at any time for no charge. Officer Hernandez’s newest library is mobile, allowing him to distribute books at community events throughout the city, including street festivals.
The impact of his program has been immense, and no one knows it better than the teachers in Sanford-area schools. That’s why Bentley Elementary decided to add one more Little Free Library to Sanford’s growing collection, and the school dedicated it to Officer Hernandez as a tribute to all the work he has done.
“He goes way beyond what headquarters asks him to do,” says Fritz Voltaire, community outreach director for Rescue Outreach Mission, which works closely with the Police Department to serve Sanford families in need. “He doesn’t just wear the uniform. He loves identifying the needs of others and meeting those needs.”
Michael, 30, moved to Sanford when he was in the seventh grade, attending Millennium Middle School and then the engineering magnet program at Lyman High. After graduation, he enrolled at the University of Central Florida, intending to study mechanical engineering.
“I found out maybe it wasn’t for me,” Michael says. “I wanted to do something where I connected to the public, where I could relate to people one-on-one.”
In college, he flirted briefly with philosophy before turning to sociology studies. Michael began volunteering with the Sanford Police Department in 2013 and officially joined the department as a patrol officer two years later.
It was a perfect fit: a guy who wanted to connect to people one-on-one and a police department that encourages its officers to do just that. Also, in joining law enforcement, Michael followed in the footsteps of his father and two uncles.
The Little Free Library concept came to his attention when someone asked on social media if Sanford PD had such a program. Officer Hernandez was a patrol officer at the time, and he worried that many families might struggle to get to the Seminole County Library branch in downtown Sanford, which is right in the middle of the city’s busy commercial district. By building a Little Free Library at the department’s headquarters on Historic Goldsboro Boulevard, Officer Hernandez put books within easy reach of many neighborhoods and schools.
“The project reflects my own story of a child being empowered to create their own future through education,” he says.
Books in each Little Free Library are donated by public libraries, schools, community organizations, and parents whose kids have outgrown the world of Dr. Seuss. Each library has books for everyone – from learning about shapes to literature for teens.
“A lot of kids are picky readers,” Officer Hernandez grins. “They’ll say, ‘I want this book by this author.’“
Michael currently lives with his family in Volusia County, but they plan a move back to Sanford soon. He sometimes takes his two daughters, who are six and eight, to local library events. The girls give advice on what things other kids might want to read, and they make good role models because of their enthusiasm for books.
Fritz, whose idea it was to dedicate the Bentley Elementary library to Officer Hernandez, says reading to children as early as infancy is critical for their brain development. And while it may sometimes be a bit of a grind to read One Fish, Two Fish... for the 12th night straight, Fritz says it’s important to cheerfully go along.
“As parents, we have to learn to say, ‘I’m enjoying this,’“ he says.
Bentley’s Little Free Library was unveiled during a ceremony held in Officer Hernandez’s honor this past summer.
“I was pretty moved – it was emotional,” he says. “It was an honor to see that my work has made an impact.”
All Little Free Libraries are part of a nationwide organization that has existed for more than a decade. While its motto is take a book and leave a book, Officer Hernandez wants his young readers to just take – he’ll worry about restocking the shelves himself.
“My goal is just to get more books into homes,” he says.
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