Jan Jablonski, a longtime advocate for the Noyes Library for Young Children in Kensington, died Monday at age 61 due to complications from ALS, the debilitating neurodegenerative disease with which she was diagnosed in August 2011.
Jablonksi was one of the founding members of the Noyes Children’s Library Foundation, the all-volunteer group that over the past 25 years raised thousands of dollars to keep the historic library—believed to be the oldest in the Washington, D.C., area—open through two rounds of cuts to the budget for Montgomery County’s library system.
She served as the foundation’s co-president up until her death despite having no use of her arms and legs over the last few years. She relied on a ventilator for breathing and often communicated by typing her thoughts out, or having someone sitting close to her at foundation meetings announce what she said to others in the room.
Just last week, Jablonski and her husband, Dan, hosted a meeting of the group’s development committee in their home. The foundation is partnering with the county on a $3.1 million renovation project to make the library, a yellow rectangular-house on Carroll Avenue that dates back to 1893, more accessible and to add space for activities and classes.
“She had an awareness of what children want and what works for kids and the importance of holding on to the fact that Noyes needed to be a library,” said Sheila Dinn, co-president of the foundation who started working with Jablonksi in the early 1990s. “She knew it needed to have a book collection. It needed to have those magical elements that kids look for, but that it also needed to become more accessible.”
Dan Jablonski said Wednesday his wife was originally inspired to advocate for Noyes because it was a welcoming place for Matthew, one of the couple’s two sons, who suffered from epilepsy while growing up and was taking seizure medication that negatively affected his mood and behavior.
“Noyes became a safe haven. What happened is you walk in there and it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what you are. If you’re a child, that’s the beginning, the middle and end of the story,” Dan Jablonski said. “It was important enough that she threw everything she had into it for 30 years.”
The one-room facility dedicated to children’s books is unique in the Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL) system, which has 20 other library branches laid out in a more traditional format with multiple rooms, book sections, computers and other resources.
In the early 1990s and again in 2010 during the aftermath of the recession, Noyes was in danger of being closed or having its services significantly altered as MCPL dealt with budget cuts.
The Noyes Library for Young Children in Kensington, via Noyes Children's Library Foundation
“I admired her personally. I admired the work she did on behalf of children,” MCPL Director Parker Hamilton said. Hamilton said she first became aware of Jablonski when the foundation was created in 1991, but didn’t work with her directly until 2010. “She was an awesome advocate. She saw the uniqueness of Noyes and the work they were doing was extremely important.”
Diana Ditto, vice president for administration of the Noyes foundation and one of its first board members, said Jablonski was among the original group of people who decided closing Noyes “was not going to happen.”
The foundation organized an annual gala with auctions featuring children’s books autographed by famous actors and celebrities. Ditto said the foundation raised about $25,000 a year in the early ’90s toward operating costs for the library.
“Noyes is kind of a place that people just fall in love with and it makes you want to go there with your child because you see the delight on the faces of the children,” Ditto said. “Jan was an inspiration for that. Her first goal was really to have everyone keep imagining Noyes through the eyes of a child and through a child’s experience and point of view.”
Jablonski, who lived in Bethesda, had worked for about 15 years as an economist before getting a master’s degree in early childhood education and switching to a job as a preschool teacher at the Outdoor Nursery School in Chevy Chase. Staff at the preschool had recommended Noyes to the Jablonski family as a place to take Matthew, Dan Jablonski said.
Jan and Dan co-authored a grant application to the American Physical Society (APS) in 2014 to create a “Penny Theater” program for presenting children’s picture books that was introduced at Noyes and other library branches throughout the county. Dan Jablonski is a physicist and member of the organization.
“Jan is probably one of a very, very few English majors and preschool teachers to have presented a paper at APS,” Dan Jablonski said. “She’s proof that you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking, or even a physicist, to do physics from a wheelchair.”
In March, after the county finished work on a new wheelchair ramp at Noyes, Jan Jablonski was able to enter the building for the first time since becoming a quadriplegic.
“It was a very emotional day,” Ditto said. “She really wasn’t sure if she would ever be able to go inside the library again. She loved being there and the whole ambience of the building.”
The foundation plans to raise $1.6 million toward the library renovation and the county has pledged $1.5 million. County Council member George Leventhal, who on Tuesday posted his condolences about Jablonski’s death on Facebook, said he believed her condition encouraged people to try to accelerate the project “as quickly as possible so she could experience as much of it as possible.”
“She stayed positive and she was just very optimistic and upbeat about the big task of raising a million dollars,” Leventhal said. “As she became more debilitated, it was really extraordinary how she stayed focused on the task.”
Dan Jablonski said Jan had travelled more than 200 miles in her power wheelchair since early 2012 and was driven about 28,000 miles in the family’s wheelchair-accessible van. The couple attended shows at the Kennedy Center and Washington Nationals games, including this season’s opening day contest.
Jablonski is survived by her husband and two children, Matthew, 30, and Peter, 21. She was buried Thursday in the Rockville Cemetery.
“She contributed more to others than I could ever hope to in a score of lifetimes,” Dan Jablonski said.