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Geoff Fisk, Desert Dispatch
A framed photo at the Barstow Library shows Helen Riley, who was the Children's Librarian from 1966-2004. Riley passed away Monday at the age of 87.

Longtime librarian, library volunteer Helen Riley dies at 87

Staff Writer

BARSTOW • For nearly a half-century, Helen Riley’s voice brought children’s books to life.

Generations of Barstow children grew up listening to Riley during story time at the Barstow Library and at local schools. Riley, who passed away Monday at the age of 87, served as the children’s librarian at the library from 1966 to 2004, and continued to conduct reading activities for local youth well after retirement.

Barstow Library Literacy Specialist Steve Smith said Riley touched lives over multiple generations.

“I have sincerely seen parents of 8- or 10-year-olds when Ms. Helen is having a story time,” Smith said, “and the reason why they bring them in is because they went to Ms. Helen’s story time. So she’s actually been reading stories to kids for two generations, literally.”

Riley remained an influence on local children after stepping down as the children’s librarian at the age of 80.

“She did somewhat regular programs as long as she was well enough, called ‘Read With Me.’ ” Smith said. “She would just come in and sit at a table, and she would have some treats. It was mainly for older kids. They would get a chapter book and they would read one chapter and she’d read a chapter.”

In 2009, Riley traveled to Africa, going to the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso to visit relatives along with her daughter and son-in-law, Monica and Issa Zango.

“I tell all the people at the gym that I’m going to the motherland,” Riley told the Desert Dispatch before leaving for Africa in September 2009.

“Africa is where my family comes from,” Riley said. “It’s something I think all black Americans feel. It’s the past for our people. It’s important for you to know where your ancestors are from. It’s similar to the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead. You need to remember the past.”

Riley’s impact on the children of Barstow spanned nearly 50 years, and her legacy lives on.

“To me, I marveled at her because, like I said, the ‘Read With Me’ program, more often than not when she couldn’t do it, it was because she was visiting family back in Oakland,” Smith said. “Or tracing some roots back in Africa. Sincerely, I don’t know how many people in this town learned to love to read and hear stories from listening to Ms. Helen.”

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