A disheveled woman sits quietly at a table in the Vermont Square Branch library in South Los Angeles. She doesn’t glance at patrons or librarians passing by. A few plastic bags filled with belongings lie beside her as she crouches by a computer clutching her phone, which is plugged in and charging.

This was the scene Christina Hernandez, 32, saw one day when she entered her local public library with her children.

“She sat there in front of us for like an hour,” Hernandez said. “I don’t even think she was reading, but it was the one thing she could get out of the library.”

To Hernandez’s surprise, no one approached the woman to escort her out. After a while, she glanced at the battery level on her phone, picked up her things and moved to a less-intrusive corner, where she dozed off.

“Other libraries may have asked her to leave, but [branch manager] Martha [Sherod] was very welcoming,” Hernandez said. “I was happy; it was cold outside and warm inside, and this lady had a safe place to stay.”

Listen to Martha Sherod, the library's branch manager, discuss the Vermont Square Branch's efforts to be a welcoming community institution.

Raising a family of voracious readers, Hernandez had always brought her children to the library regularly, but she became so enamored with the branch’s warmth that she began to volunteer her own time. She is now a familiar presence during weekend book sales and children’s programs.

“I have a lot of respect for our librarians: They go above and beyond what they need to do and care as human beings for our community,” Hernandez said.

This is no coincidence. The Vermont Square Branch, which is one of the oldest libraries in the LA Public Library system (and a designated Historical-Cultural Monument by the City of LA), has served its community for over a century. It has filled a wide range of roles over the decades, even acting as an air-raid shelter during World War II.

In more modern times, however, the library’s primary function—other than providing books—has changed. Not only is it a lifeline for many of the local youth, who grow up in a high-crime neighborhood (where the majority of residents do not have a high school diploma), but it is also a place where all visitors feel safe and welcomed. Upon spending time at their community branch, many decide they don’t want to leave.

“It’s kind of a distraction from the outside stuff,” Brenda Vargas, 23, said as she browsed her options during a used-book sale in the library basement. Vargas will be starting school soon at Santa Monica College and was looking for textbooks. She and her 10-year-old sister, Natalie, live two blocks away; they come often to study or read for pleasure.

“It’s a good place to come to,” Vargas continued. “This is a bad area, but [the library] helps you stay out of trouble.”

The branch has free internet, movies, comics, magazines and, of course, books to entertain patrons (in both English and Spanish). It also hosts an educational program almost every single day, sometimes as simple as arts and crafts and other times flashier: like a visit from therapy dogs or local police.

One of the branch’s librarians, Claudia Guadrón, knows the challenges local children face, having grown up in South Central herself. It is the library’s duty, she said, to welcome inquisitive minds like the Vargas siblings and to instill a love of learning in them.

“Our neighborhoods need education, and it starts here, with children reading,” Guadrón said. “We have little patrons over here, and I know all of their names. They love that a librarian is speaking to them, and they feel important.”

Indeed, the Vermont Square Branch has put a concerted effort into community outreach and promoting early education, such as a monthly partnership with Foundation for Second Chances to hold an elementary literacy program. The library staff takes the time to get to know each student who passes through the doors personally, all in an effort to provide South Central’s children with a sanctuary—and the hard work has paid off in more ways than one.

“It was the one place in the community where I felt my kids were always safe and welcome, and there were so many things for them to do,” Hernandez said. “The kids that are lucky enough to be brought here have a safe place, and I see kids that are here often, like it’s their second home.”

One of those “kids” was Dr. Gilbert Jones, 60. Jones is now in his 41st year working at the Vermont Square Branch, having begun as a messenger clerk during high school (after frequenting the branch as a child). Thanks to the library, he was able to complete his education and raise funds to study even further. Eventually, he received his PhD in England and taught music at institutions from Western Avenue Elementary School to Harvard College.

All the while, wanting to pay back those who provided so much for him, Jones continued to man the circulation desk at the Vermont Square Branch when he could.

“I know all the people here, and they saw me grow up as a child—so it’s just like home to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to become who I am today without the library.

“Now, I just feel that I should give back to the community.”

Guadrón pointed to Jones’ story as the gold standard of what the branch hoped to achieve when teaching and fostering relationships with children.

“When they come over here, they start looking at books and seeing how different their life could be if they get an education,” she said. “And then they can bring it back home.”

There may already be another young man following Jones’ path—and making improvements of his own. 18-year-old Carlos Sosa transitioned to a full-fledged volunteer at the library after working there occasionally to log required community service hours during high school.

“Every time I come to volunteer, I see kids from all sorts of different schools having fun and getting away from everything,” he said. “I see the change in the kids from the programs and the impact on the community.”

Sosa now harbors ambitions of attending college—perhaps at nearby USC—and majoring in computer science. Then he plans to return to the Vermont Square Branch and start an introductory coding program for children. When explaining the reasoning behind his decision, Sosa sounded eerily like Jones:

“I would like to come back someday and help the library as much as it has helped me,” he said.

One More Story: Meet Jasmine

Jasmine is a South Central native who took refuge at the Vermont Square Branch while growing up with an abusive father. She shared her story with folk-pop artists Us the Duo for a project called #PublicRecordEP, a new short album that contains five songs, each about a fan's life. Hear from Jasmine and her mother below (filmed in the library):