The LIBRARY LEADER
Michael Kenny, executive director of the Library Foundation of Martin County, sees libraries as the lifeblood to a community. ANTHONY INSWASTY PHOTO
BY DONNA CRARY
Michael Kenny, the executive director of the Library Foundation of Martin County, sees libraries as a vital link to a community. They are important places of outreach where people can gather information, read a book and meet for all kinds of programs.
“I firmly believe that the United States is the greatest country on Earth, and the reason for that is opportunity,” he says. “In order to avail yourself of opportunity, you need access to information and libraries provide that access, regardless of the color of your skin, gender, socioeconomic status or religion. Libraries welcome everyone. It’s a cornerstone of our community.”
Kenny’s passion for reading and the role that libraries play began early on as a young child. He fondly remembers spending time at his hometown library while growing up in New Providence, N.J.
“I love libraries and I’m a voracious reader,” he says. “One of my earliest memories in life, I can picture it like it was yesterday, is being 3 years old. I can remember walking into the library for storyhour where my mother was one of the volunteer readers.”
This love for books served him well as a young man. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business with high honors from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He spent the early part of his career working for exclusive five-star resorts including the celebrated Greenbrier in West Virginia, the Boca Raton Hotel and Club and the Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas. One of his shining moments was helping coordinate an international trade summit at the Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas during the Reagan Administration.
Many on the Treasure Coast got to know Kenny when he was district director for former Rep. Patrick Murphy. While working for the congressman, he became familiar with the people and organizations in the area.
“One of the things that is so special about this community is, unlike some of the larger metropolitan parts of South Florida, people here are still so engaged and involved in improving the quality of life,” he says.
Today, Kenny leads the foundation with great enthusiasm. He promotes libraries as centers where many activities take place. Preschool children can participate in storytime, while organizations like AARP and the Genealogical Society can hold meetings in the spacious rooms. They also provide access to computers for those who are job-hunting or want to learn how to write a resume or cover letter.
“Every day I’m startled how every computer is being used the entire time the library is opened,” he says. “I think it’s easy for some of us who have laptops, iPads and smartphones to lose sight of how important that is to other people. Libraries are accessed by such a variety of people. Social service agencies that focus on special needs adults bring their clients here every week.”
The foundation’s mission is to raise funds so its six libraries can continue to provide essential programs that sales taxes don’t cover. Such services include homework helpers, a free, one-on-one tutoring program; STEM, a hands-on educational project that stimulates young minds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; Gateway to the Arts, a cultural center that provides classes in painting, sewing and crafts; and Bookmania, an annual festival where leading authors discuss their literary works.
Promoting a love for reading is a big part of the library’s mission. In 2016, the foundation established the Young Literary Leaders Award Program to recognize excellence in reading. One boy and girl from each Martin County elementary school is nominated by educators and specially recognized at their fifth-grade graduation ceremony. Kenny shares its impact on the community.
“The fifth-grade graduation ceremony at Port Salerno Elementary sticks in my mind,” he recalls. “Everybody is spit and polished, and it’s so vibrantly clear that these families value institutions and opportunities of learning. They understand that that’s the path, the gateway, to their kids’ success. That’s what makes this exciting for me.”
The summer reading program is another valuable resource that keeps young minds active and helps them retain reading skills. It’s popular, with more than 9,200 Martin County students participating last summer.
As executive director, Kenny reaches out and collaborates with other nonprofits, so community needs are sufficiently met and dollars are well spent. He stresses the importance of literacy and its ability to open doors to a better life.
“Research shows if you’re not literate, your career plans are limited — incarceration rates, substance abuse, domestic violence — all of that is interrelated,” he said. “We have a moral responsibility. But even if you don’t believe that, and you look at it from a fiscal-economic perspective, it is money well spent.”
When Kenny is not busy leading the foundation, he enjoys spending quiet moments walking on the beach or cooking in the kitchen. And as you might expect from a library leader, he relishes his time with a good book. He savors biographies and historical books because he loves learning through other life experiences.
“Books have always been an escape for me,” he said. “I’m a serious reader, so if I’m reading — I’m really reading. I don’t read with the TV or radio on. They are a way to shut down all the day-to-day demands and refresh yourself.”
Lives in: Hobe Sound
Occupation: Executive director of the Library Foundation of Martin County
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business from Rochester Institute of Technology
Hobbies: Reading, walking on the beach and cooking
Who inspires you: “My parents and the example that they led and the values they imparted. My parents weren’t the type who lectured or preached. They certainly never bragged. They were the epitome — the absolute definition — of good citizenship — hard-working family values. My brothers, sister, and I learned through their example without even realizing we were learning it.”
Something most people don’t know about you: “My life is pretty much an open book.”