Music legend’s literary gift benefits Allen County kids

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library will allow every child in Allen County access to free, high-quality books. The program is make possible through the Iola Rotary and Talk, Read, Play Allen County efforts.


Local News

February 14, 2020 - 4:17 PM

Jessy Coffield, preschool teacher, reads to children at Ready Set Learn preschool Wednesday as Sheri Orear, owner, watches. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library recognizes the value of reading to children from birth to age 5 and will now send free, high-quality books to every child in Allen County each month, courtesy of the Iola Rotary Club and Talk, Read, Play Allen County. Photo by Vickie Moss

Every child in Allen County from birth to age 5 can now start their very own library collection, courtesy of local groups and music legend Dolly Parton.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library will send a free, high-quality book to every young child who signs up for the program, courtesy of the Iola Rotary Club and Talk, Read, Play Allen County, in collaboration with numerous local agencies. Each month, they’ll get a new book, and each child in a family is eligible to participate up to age 5.

The Iola Rotary Club has a history of encouraging Allen County youth to read and take leadership roles, with a program that gives a personalized dictionary to every third grader and a youth leadership camp for high schoolers.

But studies show that children start to develop language skills by having books read to them, long before they learn to read themselves. And those who are read to or start to read at a young age tend to do better in school and have a better chance of graduating.

Iola Rotary President Judy Brigham realized organizations in the county need to do everything they can to encourage early reading skills.

“We have programs for older kids but we’ve got this disparity when it comes to reaching children at a critical age,” she said. 

“If a child isn’t read to between birth and three, by the time they start school they are already behind. Teachers can’t make a difference with kids who aren’t there yet.”

Parents can’t always afford quality literature, or don’t know which books to buy.

“I read to my kids, but I was a working mom and going to the library wasn’t always an option,” Brigham said. “Plus, I didn’t know which books were best for kids.”

The Imagination Library selects books that have literary and educational value as well as being entertaining and age-appropriate. Many are classics, such as “Corduroy” by Don Freeman, “Good Night Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. The list changes every year, so a younger child will receive a different book than their older siblings did at the same age. That way, families receive a greater variety of books. Families don’t get to choose which books they receive.

“The hope is that they save the books and create a family library for the children,” Beth Toland, with Allen Community College, said.

“All of us can recall our favorite stories growing up, whether a parent read to us or a grandparent or a teacher when we came back from recess,” Toland continued. “Reading fosters joy. It builds intimacy and positive relationships between parents and children, and between child care providers or teachers and children. Early literacy expands a child’s knowledge of the world around them.”

Applications are now available online.

COSTS FOR the program come from donations, with several businesses and individuals already committing support. Iola Rotary collects donations and works with the Imagination Library to oversee the program.

But more money will be needed to sustain it through the future, Brigham said. Donors are asked to make a five year commitment.

Individuals also can “adopt” a child by donating as little as $25. That’s the cost of providing books for one child for an entire year. 

“We’re still seeking support. We want to build a sustainable program for our county,” Toland said. 

Organizers estimate Allen County has about 685 children who will qualify each year. 

“Our goal is 100% participation with Allen County families,” Toland said.

INFORMATION about the program is available through the Iola Rotary Club and its members, as well as the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department, Allen County Regional Hospital, local doctor’s offices, and preschools and child care centers.

The Imagination Library began in 1995 through the Dollywood Foundation in Dolly Parton’s hometown of Sevier County, Tennessee. A national program followed in 2000. By 2003, the Imagination Library had mailed one million books.  By 2016, it was sending one million books each month.

The state of Tennessee offered coverage to all young children in the state beginning in 2004. Other states have followed suit, with Kansas at one point offering a limited version of the program, which has since been scaled back. The program also reaches children in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland.

Efforts to bring the program to Allen County began about six months ago, as Rotary members reached out to other organizations and individuals for support. There is a lot to consider, Brigham said, such as how to educate parents about the program. If a family moves, it’s important to file a change of address so the child can continue to receive books. The Rotary Club also plans to organize some type of depository, in case parents want to cull their collection and donate to a library or preschool.

“I’ve seen what a difference this program can make in other communities and other states. I’m excited to bring that to our community and our kids,” Brigham said.

To learn more, contact Brigham at 620-365-1615 or visit the Iola Rotary Club’s website.

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