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Dolly Parton's Imagination Library fuels young readers

Feb 20, 2018 03:41PM

By Stacy Turner

Even if you’re not a country music fan, chances are you’re familiar with Dolly Parton.  With 25 gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, and 41 top-ten country albums, she came from humble roots to become the most honored female country performer of all time.  But she contends that her greatest achievement was the creation of the Imagination Library, something she created as a way to honor her father.

Like most little girls, Parton idolized her father, whom she referred to as the smartest man she knew, in spite of his inability to read. She acknowledged that this inability probably kept him from achieving his dreams, so she set out to make a difference for others.

In 1995, a program was founded so that every child in her home county in Tennessee would have their own books to encourage a love of reading and learning.  The program was so successful and generated such interest from across the country it eventually spread around the world, now delivering a book per month to over one million children around the world. 

Since launching the program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, in conjunction with local organizations, has mailed over 90 million free books in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the United States. 

Local program affiliates include the Imagination Library of Kirtland (ILoK) and the Heights Family Foundation, which serves families in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, University Heights, East Cleveland and Euclid.

The enrollment process is simple, explains ILoK Executive Director Paul Zuberer.  “You sign your child up for the program through the Imagination Library of Kirtland and we do the rest.  Each month, from the day your child is born, until his or her 5th birthday, a carefully selected book arrives in the mail.”  Zuberer explained that each book is carefully selected by a committee comprised of parents, teachers, and others specializing in early childhood literacy. 

Zuberer became involved when he read an article about the program, and thought it would be a valuable asset to his community.  Now in it’s ninth year in Kirtland, the program serves over 150 families each month.  According to Zuberer, parents who participate in the program simply love it.  “They see the program instilling the love of reading in their children because the books are age-appropriate and are always different.  Receiving something in the mail each month peaks their child’s interest,” he explained. “They want to go to the library or store to get more books.”

But the success of the program goes well beyond increased visits to the local library or bookstore. There’s compelling research to support the benefits of early literacy. “The most successful people in the world are avid readers,” contends Zuberer.

John Davies, president of the Heights Family Foundation (HFF), believes in the mission of the Imagination Library as well.  He and his wife learned about the program in 2014 from friends in Tennessee.  They were looking for a way to contribute more to their local community.  Since their children were young at the time, they appreciated the benefit of having books in the home, and the program’s mission really resonated with them.

The Davies family incorporated HFF as a nonprofit in the summer of 2014 and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library (DPIL) mailed the affiliate's first order that November.  At the start, HFF served children in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, and University Heights.  In the succeeding years, they added children in East Cleveland and Euclid, and last spring, they partnered with The Literacy Cooperative and the Bruening Foundation to sponsor the DPIL in Bedford, Garfield Heights, Maple Heights, and Warrensville Heights.

According to Davies, this month, DPIL is mailing 3,012 books to children in HFF's sponsorship area.  Nationwide, DPIL mails over 1 million books per month.

“We are very grateful to our partners at The Literacy Cooperative,” Davies shared. “With their help, we have seen our registration numbers accelerate drastically.  Our March 2018 order is nearly double the size of our order the previous year. Their operational support has significantly increased our registration outreach and outcomes,” he marveled.

One of the rewards of the program is the wonderful feedback from Imagination Library participants. “Certainly we enjoy hearing feedback from our recipients,” Davies acknowledged, “especially when parents share their children's enthusiasm for books in general or for a new favorite title. We also know that all of the research in the fields of childhood development and childhood literacy supports the benefits of books in the home,” he continued. “Children's development of literacy and academic skills is quite important, but so too is the additional bond that caregivers and children develop as they read and discuss books together.”

According to Zuberer, The Dollywood Foundation provides the infrastructure and subsidizes the program to lower the cost of the books and mailing for the local affiliate.  Each local affiliate supports the efforts through local fundraisers and donations from community organizations, businesses, and individuals.  The average local cost of the program is around $35 per child per year; if a child is enrolled in the program from birth until the age of 5, they can receive a full 60-book library.

For more information on the Imagination Library of Kirtland, contact Paul Zuberer at imagination [email protected] 

For more information on the Imagination Library at the Heights Family Foundation, call (216) 307-READ or visit heightsfamily.org

To find out if there’s a Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in your community or to learn how to start one in your area, visit them online at www.imaginationlibrary.com.

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