Some things are simply synonymous. When you think of one, you think of the other.
For many in the Russell County community, a prime example is Story Hour at the Library and Ms. Fill.
For more than 30 years, Fillamay Cowell, or known by nearly all as Ms. Fill, has been a fixture in the community as the children’s librarian at the Russell County Public Library and the leader of Story Hour at the Library.
As Ms. Fill prepares to go into retirement at the end of this month, she reflected on her career, one that has undoubtedly left a positive impact on tens of thousands of Russell County residents.
Being a children’s librarian was a lifelong goal for Ms. Fill growing up. It was a profession she witnessed early on from her mother, and she knew she wanted to venture down that same path from an early age, even without a library in her hometown of Oregon, Ohio.
“I was always around that atmosphere with my mother, and she always made sure that as kids, we always went to the library,” she said. “We had to go to the next town over because our town didn’t have one at the time but she always made sure to take us. When I was in school, and we were doing career units, I said I wanted to be a librarian. They discouraged me big time from that.”
But that discouragement in school early on didn’t sway her from her dreams, and Ms. Fill eventually got her foot into the door at the Russell County Public Library. She worked at Minit Mart 60 hours each week, and on her day off, worked at the library part time until a full-time position was available. It wasn’t an easy year-and-a-half, she said, but worked out well in the long run.
When she landed that full-time position, she started out doing Story Hour, sparking a love for reading into children at a young age. She also embarked on a plan to bring the library into the schools.
“Nobody had ever really been into the schools,” she said. “I finally planted the seed and they started letting me in and once I got in, they started to see the benefit and see the importance, but until then, it just hadn’t been done and they didn’t really understand why I was coming. I was just going to get the kids excited about reading and giving some of these teachers a little break.”
She’s done story hour for preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, daycare, adult daycare, high school special education, and more. Before the pandemic hit, it was 15-20 Story Hour programs a week. The library estimates that over her career, she hosted roughly 18,000 Story Hour programs.
“Now, a lot of my beginning kids are bringing their kids in for Story Hour, which has been really amazing to see,” she said. “It makes you feel good to see people come back and bring their children. It makes me feel like I made an impact.”
And that impact is shown even when she’s not on the job. She recalled several instances where she’s ran into Story Hour children in the grocery store and they ran to her and hugged her.
“it’s just really nice that they remember who you are,” she said.
Technology has changed drastically during her career, and the amount of access children have to technology has caused her to adapt and change how she reaches children.
“I figured if I had to compete with video games, television, and computers, I figured I had to do something kind of spectacular,” she said. “So I wore wild socks, crazy hats, shoes that light up, just to get their attention. Before, it wasn’t quite as hard when there weren’t so many distractions, but now, you have to be spectacular.”
The socks, the hats, the shoes… it was all in an effort to make reading fun.
“Reading isn’t boring, it’s fun, and you can make it fun,” Ms. Fill said. “I just tried to bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy into reading in hopes that they would do the same.”
“It’s made my job a dream to work with Ms. Fill,” Westerfield said.
Westerfield has worked with Ms. Fill for nine years, and said her ability to adapt to changes over the years is one of the many things that make her so special.
“Ms. Fill has been through a lot of library directors and a lot of changes over the years, and there are few people who could weather the changes and challenges we’ve had over the course of her career better,” Westerfield said.
And her dedication to children is unmatched.
“She is so deeply dedicated to her job, and so deeply dedicated to children,” Westerfield said. “To me, that is the epitome of being a children’s librarian and just being a wonderful employee. I couldn’t say enough good things about her.”
In 2016, Ms. Fill was awarded the “Miss Pickle” award by the Kentucky Public Library Association, and is the highest honor the organization grants for children’s librarians across the commonwealth.
“I believe she is deserving of that award ten times over,” Westerfield said.
Westerfield said Ms. Fill’s legacy will be one that lasts at the Russell County Public Library.
“She will have a legacy here that will never truly be replaced,” Westerfield said. “We’re so happy for her. She’s deserved this in 30 years of truly dedicated service.”
“I just hope people remember me as someone who had a passion and was really enthusiastic about getting kids involved in reading,” Ms. Fill said. “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have done for 30 years.”