FAMILIAR FACES: Lelia Higgins creates life of reading and running

Lelia Higgins is the library manager at Windermere Branch Library by day — and an avid reader and runner at night and on the weekends.

Running and travel are two of Lelia Higgins’ favorite hobbies.
Running and travel are two of Lelia Higgins’ favorite hobbies.
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A voracious reader as a child, Lelia Higgins loved sitting down with an open book so much that when she and her older sister made their weekly visit to the library growing up in Jamaica, she used her sister’s card and took home a double load of books.

“My mother said I read everything in the house,” Higgins said.

From those childhood visits, Higgins fell in love with the library and all the information it held and all the knowledge she could glean from the pages of those books and periodicals.

This love of the library would be with her for her entire life.

After she finished high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in library science and worked with the Jamaica Library Service.

After moving to Florida as an adult, Higgins took a position with the Orange County Library System in 1990 and worked on obtaining her master’s degree. Her title was library assistant, a role that no longer exists, and she was assigned to the downtown Orlando Public Library.

“We were slightly below librarians,” Higgins said of her position. “I went to library school. There are only two accredited places in Florida: University of South Florida and Florida State University. I went to USF because, at that time, there were no online classes, so I had to drive to Tampa two times a week.”

She earned her master’s degree in library and information science, and nine months later, she was promoted to assistant manager. After a year, she received the manager’s title.

Her favorite department in the four-story building was the first-floor Library Central, which held, among other genres, fiction and young adult.

Nonfiction is easy to find, she said. If a customer is looking for cookbooks, an employee easily can direct him or her to the section. Fiction is more challenging because readers typically are looking for something specific but don’t have much detail.

“‘Can you help me find a book? It’s green,’” Higgins said, laughing.

She remained at the Orlando branch for 20 years — until an opportunity arose for her to transfer to the Windermere branch of the library system in 2010. She now is in her 15th year as manager of the facility.

And she’s still an avid reader — she reads every night after work — grabbing a book from her to-be-read stack or opening one of the 150 downloaded books on her iPad.


“I like how libraries have grown – everything is available at your fingertips,” Higgins said. “You don’t have to drive into the library; we can send them to you. You can download them to your device. You can download music to your device. … My husband reads roughly 200 books a year just by downloading.

Lelia Higgins participates in timed races as much as possible. She and her husband, Cyprian, recently completed a 15K in Clermont.

“I read 150 a year,” she said. “I would say more but I don’t count the small ones, the children’s books. I read a lot of 3- to 5-year-old books because they’re cute.”

When Higgins began her OCLS career, there was one computer on the second floor. This was used to access the library system to find books, and it used floppy discs.

“And now, everyone has their own computer at their fingertips,” she said.

And then she shared a librarian’s tip: “Google is not always the answer. It gives you what comes up first, and it’s not always accurate.”

One of the biggest transitions in the library system has been the growth of class offerings and other community outreach programs. Higgins taught computer basics — how to use a mouse, how to access Word — when everyone was learning how to operate a computer.

As the community demographics have changed, so too has the staff at the Windermere branch.

“We have a huge Portuguese-speaking group that lives between Southwest and Horizon West. … I ended up hiring a Portuguese-speaking staff member,” Higgins said. “I had a Spanish-speaking staff member, but it wasn’t the same. I don’t anyone to be disenfranchised from using the library.”

This branch also staffs a French Creole speaker.

English as a Second Language remains a popular class at the library, and five classes are held weekly.

“Nothing is more pleasing than a customer who says, ‘I was finally able to go to the Publix deli and order cheese,’” she said. “When they come back and say, ‘I can do this,’ it makes your job worthwhile.”

The location of the Windermere branch also makes it popular for residents applying for U.S. citizenship. The four-week classes are designed to prepare folks for the exam.

“There are 100 questions, and the examiner will ask you 10; the problem is you don’t know which 10,” Higgins said. “We encourage them to take it over and over again until they feel confident. The exam costs over $700; the class is free. We hold their hands as much as possible.”

Helping people is at the core of Higgins’ devotion to her job.

When she discovered homeschooled students frequently were using the library, she started a program, including a curriculum, just for them. When she found out some parents were having difficulty getting their homeschooler to the library because of younger siblings, Higgins created Homeschool Junior.

Because there’s a high interest in art, the Windermere library continually adds art classes.

“II like variety in what we offer,” she said. “If they ask for it, I’m going to try to fit it in the calendar.”

Some of Higgins’ favorite moments are when a former story time toddler or preschools returns for a visit. She also frequently catches up with a former high school volunteer who now is a doctor and still comes back to say hi.

She loves finding books that will spark the imaginations of young readers.

“You can’t make a child read, but you can encourage their interests,” she said. “For young boys, anything with body functions, joke books. … If they’re reading it, that’s what matters.”

What piques Higgins’ interest? Once historical fiction, it’s now current fiction and true-crime mysteries with a smattering of science fiction.

Lelia Higgins ran the six major marathons — Chicago, Boston, New York City, London, Tokyo and Berlin — to earn the Six Star completion medal for Abbott World Marathon Majors.


Born in Jamaica, Higgins and her husband now make their home in Independence, where they both remain active.

“I run, and every day I do a 5K,” she said.

During the cold months, though, she’s indoors as much as possible.

“I’ve been doing a walking (program) in my living room,” she said. “I’m not going outside. Once it hits 60, I’m fine; anything below 60 is uncivilized.”

At the age of 64, Higgins has racked up an impressive 52 completed marathons.

“The goal is to do one in every state and one in every continent,” she said. “I’ve done 44 states so far; six to go. I have three planned for this year.”

Her running shoes have hit the ground in four continents so far: Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. She will have to psych herself up to go to Antarctica, she said.

What’s her best marathon time?

“My best time is 4 something,” she said. “It was 32 degrees in Fargo, North Dakota. I was so cold I just wanted to get out of there.”

She knows she isn’t going to win the marathons, so she runs with her phone and takes photos — especially in the overseas races — enjoying everything about the experience.

“A lot of them are one and done,” she said. “I’m not going back to New Zealand to do a race. It was gorgeous, so I stopped periodically and took pictures. I just beat the time limit. I need to enjoy it as well.”

Her favorite marathon was in Berlin.

“I was relatively new to running, and it was pancake flat; 26 miles wall-to-wall of people,” she said. “It was amazing. Pots, pans, everything they could use to celebrate you as you ran by. The people were amazing.”

Her love of running hasn’t waned over the years. She and her husband are running a half marathon at the end of January, and she is signed up for the Disney Princess Half Marathon in February. She will run in Amsterdam in April. And she said if she can’t get her husband to run with her, she will bribe her daughters and one of her sons-in-law to participate in races alongside her.

When she’s not running, she’s planning a skydiving adventure or hiking Peru’s Machu Picchu. She wants to try parasailing.

“People say, ‘You’re a librarian and you do what?’” she said. “My husband says, ‘Here she goes again.’ Life is too short to be limited to work and home.”

One wall of Lelia Higgins’ home in Horizon West is dedicated to her passion for running and racing.



Amy Quesinberry

Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.

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