Most afternoons, the 12 branches of the Long Beach Public Library are packed.
Library officials say they've struggled — like other public libraries nationwide — to keep patrons' interest and stay relevant to residents in a digital world. But the library's literacy program has been especially popular since its implementation two years ago.
The program dedicates computers, work space and assistance specifically to families looking to hunt for jobs, take English as a Second Language courses or work on homework.
Trained assistants — often fluent in three or four languages — staff this special section of the libraries and work with parents like Maria Hernandez on their job searches and English while their children complete homework.
"The Family Learning Centers have been an important part of our lives," said Hernandez, whose middle school-aged daughter Andrea and elementary school-aged son James both use the center daily for homework help.
Hernandez, who has become a regular at the primary library branch, praised the "unconditional" attention offered by the program. Her children's success in school, she says, is directly linked to the program.
While Hernandez and her children are typical participants at the learning center during the afternoon, those taking advantage of the literacy program vary throughout the day, said Sarah Myer, executive director of the Long Beach Public Library Foundation.
The literacy centers are often packed with single parents seeking job hunting assistance and English classes during the day while their children are in school.
The success of the program is due in large part to its implementation across all of the city's libraries as well as the variety of services it provides.
"We're pulling together all of our services into one hub," Meyer said, adding that the libraries are looking to add specialized programs for the disabled and for returning veterans to the literacy program in the near future.
While library visitors are permitted to use computers for only an hour each day, those using the computers in the family learning centers are allowed access for as long as they like, she said.
At the Mark Twain Library, one of the larger branches in the Long Beach system, more than 1,500 people visit each day — with most using the resources offered by the literacy program
Especially popular is the homework help, Meyer said, adding that the library estimates there are about 18,000 children who live within walking distance of that branch.
Through the generosity of Times readers and a match by the McCormick Foundation, nearly $450,000 was granted to local literacy programs this year as a result of the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign.
The campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund, raises contributions to support established literacy programs run by nonprofit organizations that serve low-income families whose children are reading below grade levels, who are at risk of illiteracy or who have limited English proficiency.
Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.