Sixteen years ago, Madella Williams sat in the Finney County Public Library on a snowy February day for her first toddlers’ story time reading, wondering if anyone would come.

They did, and, it turns out, they kept coming.

Since 2003, Williams has been the face and mind behind Wee Readers, the library’s interactive read-aloud session for children ages 0 to 3. The story times have taken off over the years, attracting more attendees than the rest of the library’s programs combined, said executive director Pam Tuller. Welcoming at least 100 children and adults a week, Williams has served more than 63,000 people throughout her years heading the program, Tuller said.

On Wednesday, Williams closed the book on her 18 years at the library with two retirement parties and roughly 150 well-wishers. But Wee Readers, a program that has become a staple for the library and the families who attend it, isn’t going anywhere.

“It’s been my joy and my passion … ” Williams said. “It’s just been the perfect job for me.”

While leading Wee Readers, Williams met a packed room of young children, parents, grandparents and day care coordinators three days a week at the library, opening up each session with play time with a theme. A snow theme, complete with toys and decorations, might accompany frosty weather or a donut theme National Donut Day.

What follows is a coupling of read-aloud story time and song-and-dance time for kids and grown-ups alike. Williams, a former school librarian, said it’s supposed to feel special, intentional. And it works, Tuller said. Because there’s something about Williams that kids latch onto.

“I would compare her to Mr. Rogers,” Tuller said. “She knows what a kid needs. She knows when they need a hug. She knows when they need to be cheered up. She knows to get down on the floor and be at their level instead of talking over them. She just has that thing that kids love.”

Before Wee Readers, story time was only for children 3 and up at the library, Williams said — sometimes, younger kids had to bring birth certificates. But the 0-to-3 age bracket needs that time, too.

Early literacy programs make kids better readers, but also give them the language and reference points to express their emotions and learn how to behave in different settings, Tuller said. Books can help all children, including toddlers, grapple with death or divorce or understand their feelings, Williams said. Once a child at Wee Readers connected with a book about frustration, finally able to communicate her feelings to her parents.

“She could point it out. That was what she was feeling. She was ‘fwustrated,’ ” Williams said, laughing. “Books, they help that. Besides the concepts of color, ABCs, shapes, there’s a lot of emotional-type stuff, too.”

And all children can participate, Williams said. Babies sitting in their parents’ laps make eye contact with Williams or wave their hands to the music. When they get older, parents and grandparents are quick to tell Williams that the children are still good readers.

The sessions also matter to parents and guardians, Williams said. Raising kids is difficult, and sometimes it’s nice to have encouragement.

To mom Jessi Demel, the sessions allowed just that. Wee Readers brought her together with several other moms, a gathering that morphed into a play group for their toddlers and a welcome sounding board for the parents, Demel said. They shared experiences and lunches and became friends.

As children get older, they attend story times on their own, Williams said. But in those early years, they get to build that bond with their parents, and it matters.

Other parents are just glad for a safe, warm place to bring their children, one they say Williams has made possible. She is inherently welcoming and remembers kids and parents on sight, said mom Tammy Maxfield, who has brought her children to Wee Readers for seven years.

Lindsey Beckwith, who has brought both her children and children attending her day care to the story times for 12 years, said Williams treats Wee Readers kids like her own.

At Wee Readers, kids learn lessons they can’t learn at home, including how to behave in public spaces, how to interact with other kids and how to gain confidence around other adults, Demel said. And it makes a difference. Beckwith said she’s noticed the kids make friends in the play time before the sessions, and Demel has watched her son overcome shyness from week to week.

Other kids bring Wee Readers home with them, Williams said. Parents have brought back stories of toddlers reading a book before an audience of stuffed animals, re-enacting Williams’ story time. One little girl held tight to a cup, just like the one Williams sips to keep her voice fresh during sessions. She had to have the cup because Miss Madella has a cup, Tuller said.

The library is pausing its programming for all ages in August, but an updated program schedule is planned to begin in September, Tuller said. With it will come an expanded version of Wee Readers, including potential evening and Saturday sessions, she said. Emily Biernacki will step into Williams’ shoes to lead the sessions.

“We’re hoping to be able to take what (Williams) started and just continue to grow it. It’s just as big as our little library can really hold,” Tuller said. “So, the more we can grow that and expand it out would be great.”

For a full schedule of Wee Readers sessions and other free library programs, visit www.finneylibrary.org.

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.