Lani Yoshimura honored as “Woman of the Year”

David Matuszak, Director of the Santa Clara County Regional

Books. Numbers. Cars. Animals. Gardens. Education. Volunteering.

While hailing from a patchwork of backgrounds, the 2011 “Spice of Life” award recipients are threaded together via one common trait: They’re all making a positive difference in Gilroy.

The “Spice of Life” awards, which are doled out annually by the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, honors those individuals, businesses, and nonprofits that go above and beyond; demonstrating a high level of involvement and commitment to the communities they not only serve, but dually call home.

The Chamber has been hosting its Annual Citizen and Business Awards Dinner for more than 45 years, but changed the name to the “Spice of Life” awards a few years ago. The event is private and regularly draws around 300 people.

The seven honorees will be recognized during the Spice of Life Awards Ceremony Saturday at the San Juan Oaks Golf Club in Hollister.

Here’s a glimpse at the Garlic Capital’s finest.

Woman of the Year: Lani Yoshimura

Boasting a litany of bells and whistles, Gilroy’s new, state-of-the-art public library is expected to open in a little more than two months. And when opening day arrives, more than just the building will be decorated.

The Gilroy Chamber of Commerce will honor community librarian Lani Yoshimura as the 2011 “Woman of the Year” Saturday night during the annual Spice of Life awards. And those who’ve known and worked with Yoshimura over her 30-plus years as Gilroy’s librarian say the community could search high and low without finding a more-fitting recipient.

“She certainly deserves it. She does a lot for our community that is never lauded. But that’s just how she operates,” said Carol Smith, who serves on the City of Gilroy’s Library Commission. “She doesn’t call attention to her deeds – she just does them.”

Yoshimura said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Running the Garlic Capital’s library goes beyond checkouts and returns, she said – it’s about connecting with community members, young and old, and helping them better their lives.

“Sometimes they think of us as the people with our hair in a bun and the sensible shoes and we walk around and say, ‘Shh!’ That’s totally not been true,” Yoshimura said. “We have done a lot of different things. We’ve inspired people.”

She added, “I can see a couple of generations go by, and I can see the impact that we’ve had. And a lot of times, it’s just very subtle.”

Some moments and faces, however, will never leave her. Through literacy programs at Gilroy’s library – which started in 1984 – “thousands of people” have learned to read and write, Yoshimura said.

There was the 60-something farm worker who wanted to learn English and poetry so he could artistically weave stories regaling decades of arduous, sun-soaked labor. The man was motivated, Yoshimura remembered.

“Within a very short time, he was reading and writing,” she said.

Yoshimura also remembers a young mother who was saddled with a dishwashing job because her lackluster English skills prevented her from communicating with customers. One day, after realizing she couldn’t help her own children with their homework, she enrolled in the library’s adult literacy program and succeeded right away, Yoshimura said.

“She learned to read and write enough that she could become a waitress. Now she could write down orders and point to things on the menu for customers,” Yoshimura said. “She could better herself, and get a better salary because now she was getting tips.”

The woman eventually earned her GED and pursued a college education, Yoshimura said. She was a success story – one of many, Yoshimura said.

“There’s really a million stories,” she said. “It’s a thrill. What libraries really are about are free speech and being able to communicate with one another. It’s a lifetime relationship, so, I tell my staff, ‘Talk to people. Establish that relationship.'”

Yoshimura practices what she preaches. And that’s been her strongest attribute, Carol Smith said.

“She’s a person who can pull together very different types of people and personalities. She’s a good leader in that respect,” Carol Smith said. “She’s provided a lot of help to people who are struggling to find jobs.”

Carol Smith said she’s even spoken to several Hollister residents who prefer to drive roughly 20 miles to visit Gilroy’s library because of the services it provides under Yoshimura’s leadership.

Beyond heading Gilroy’s library, Yoshimura also serves as a board member for the South County Collaborative and was one of the founding members of the South County Speak Out, a movement to promote tolerance in local communities. She’s a member of the American and California Library Associations, the Public Library Association and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

“It’s an excellent choice for Woman of the Year,” said Hugh Smith, Carol’s husband, who also serves on the city’s Library Commission. “She’s not only dedicated to running the library, but improving it. She’s instituted programs that further education throughout the community.”

Yoshimura said former Gilroy City Administrator Jay Baksa nominated her for the “Woman of the Year” award. “When he told me, the first thing he said was, ‘Well, I know you don’t like this kind of thing,'” she laughed. Yoshimura said her life’s been “kind of a blur” since the Chamber announced her as Woman of the Year back in November.

“It’s absolutely an honor,” said Yoshimura, who actually lives in Campbell – the only place other than Gilroy she’s worked in the last 37 years. When she went to work for the Santa Clara County library system in the mid-1970s developing programs for mentally disabled residents, Yoshimura figured she’d jump from job to job until finding her best fit. It turns out she found it early, she said.

“It’s never been the same. That’s one thing about the library job,” she said. “I thought I’d stay two to three years on a job and move on, but this job has never been the same.”

Yoshimura said being Gilroy’s librarian is “kind of the perfect job.”

“People think we just sit around and read books, but what we really do is work with communities. And that’s what I’ve wanted to do,” she said.

The community has taken notice, Hugh Smith said.

“Being a public librarian is more than just checking out books. They have to deal with all spectrums in the community,” he said. “It’s not an easy job, but she’s done an excellent job.”



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