When he was working on his master’s in library and information science at C.W. Post in 1989, Kenneth Bellafiore stumbled on a want ad for a library trainee at the Freeport Memorial Library.
It was his goal to one day become a library director, so Bellafiore applied for the job. Working in the Children’s Room, he fell in love with the library and the Freeport community, and decided to move to the village. He dedicated the next 32 years of his life to the library.
After more than three decades there, the last 10 as the library’s director, Bellafiore retired on Feb. 25.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to serve here,” Bellafiore, 62, said. “I felt like I’ve accomplished what I wanted to, and it’s time to move on to the next chapter of my life.”
Freeport became his home
When Bellafiore arrived at the library, it needed people to staff its then new Children’s Room.
A male librarian in charge of overseeing kids was a rarity back then, Bellafiore said, as women usually occupied the position. Nonetheless, he thrived in his new job, and even took advantage of his unique position by kick-starting a Daddy-and-Me program on Saturdays.
After his time as a trainee, Bellafiore moved over to the library’s Education Information Center, now the Computer and Career Center, and the Reference Department. In 1991 he decided to make Freeport his home, and moved to the village with his wife and two daughters.
“I decided to move here because I liked what I saw from my time in the library,” Bellafiore said.
He soon immersed himself in the community, joining the Salvation Army Advisory Council, the Lions Club, the Kiwanis Club and the Chamber of Commerce. He saw all of the volunteering opportunities as a way not only to give back to his new home, but also to promote all that the library had to offer.
When he finally got his chance to become library director in 2011, Bellafiore pushed for further innovations at the facility to ensure that it could serve Freeport well into the future.
One of them was the Business Resource Information Center, which offers a range of resources to the local business community.
George Loechner, one of the librarians who helped develop BRIC, said the center provided help for local business owners to fill out certain applications, as well as serving as a space to conduct their training.
Bellafiore was also instrumental in inviting representatives of the state Small Business Development Center to come to the library to provide help to businesses on a weekly basis.
“It was important for Ken to help out the business community here,” Loechner said. “Whatever he could do to help, he’d do it.”
Along with BRIC, Bellafiore oversaw the addition of the Teen Room at the library, as well as the new Tween Room project, which library officials hope to begin this year.
Bellafiore also helped revive the library’s Citizenship 101 course, after librarians Chris Bisonette and Lupe Velasquez revamped the retired program in 2018. The course is a two-part class that reviews the U.S. naturalization process and supports those looking to become U.S. citizens.
Bellafiore said one of the key reasons he moved to Freeport was its diversity, and he believed the library should be available to all.
“He’s always supported our programs,” Bisonette said. “Ken always tries to do what he thinks is best for Freeport.”
A beacon for the community
Bellafiore said the library serves as a safe haven for residents, and that belief bookended his time as director, as his first year was spent dealing with Superstorm Sandy and his final with the coronavirus pandemic.
When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the library was spared the devastation that hit so much of Freeport, and the building itself was up and running the next day.
Residents flocked to the library to charge their phones, laptops and check out the news on the library’s monitors. The library itself also served as a warming site for people without heat.
“It meant a lot that we could be there for the people,” Bellafiore said. “Even our staff volunteered to help, despite their own hardships that they were going through because of the storm.”
In the wake of the storm, Bellafiore worked with Loechner, who had previous experience in emergency management in New York City, to create a seminar to help residents apply for Federal Emergency Management aid and bank loans, as well as hire contractors for repairs.
The seminar exploded in popularity, to the point that 1,100 people attended it at the Freeport High School. Loechner said Bellafiore was able to get FEMA and bank representatives, contractors and local officials to come to the event to work with residents.
“It was something everyone needed at the time,” Loechner said. “Ken was key in that.”
When the pandemic struck eight years later and the library was forced to shut down, Bellafiore pushed for it to offer curbside pickups and adapt to a digital audience.
During the shutdown, the library introduced two new digital services for residents, the RBdigital Magazines online archive and Kanopy, a free streaming service for films, documentaries and educational videos. The digital services continued to be a big hit in the community, even after the library reopened in June.
The library also acquired Wi-Fi hotspots to lend to patrons. Bellafiore explained that with more and more people working and studying from home, the need for the library’s Wi-Fi hotspots grew, so the library acted quickly to meet the demand.
He added that the library’s virtual events have also seen great success, with hundreds of people attending adult and youth programs.
“People have really taken to our programs, from STEM lessons with students to meditation and mental wellness exercises for residents of all ages,” Bellafiore said. “We had given out more than 150 digital library cards to our patrons, and we encourage everyone to get a physical library card to make the most out of everything we have to offer.”
As he bid farewell to the library last Thursday, Bellafiore reminisced about one of his favorite memories there.
Back in 2018, PBS was filming its “Great American Read,” an eight-part series that reviewed the 100 most beloved books in the U.S., and as a promotion for the series, PBS held a contest asking for public libraries to demonstrate their love for literature.
In response, the library’s staff dressed up as characters from their favorite books and took promotional photos to post on social media. Their creative efforts bore fruit: PBS selected the Freeport Library as one of the filming locations for the “Great American Read.”
“We were recognized for being innovative and creative to promote reading,” Bellafiore said. “This is one of the many things we did here and is a testament to the library staff.”
Bellafiore said he hopes to relax in his retirement and has plans to reinvent himself, and, of course, read yet another good book.
Lee Ann Moltzen, the library’s head of community services, was named the new director.