Hundreds of local kids benefit from Dolly Parton’s visionJun 29, 2022 02:16PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
There is nothing like cozying up with a good book, regardless of your age. For the littlest of budding bookworms, that experience often includes snuggling with a parent, grandparent or sibling. The joys of being read to has numerous benefits for children, and study upon study shows that the younger a child is exposed to books, the sooner the gains take hold.
Sharon Rosenberg didn’t have to be convinced of the importance of early book introduction. As a former high school English teacher, “books are my life,” the North East resident said. It was this affinity for the bound and printed word that led to participation in a program which to date is providing free personal libraries for nearly 800 Cecil County children, from newborns to age 5.
Rosenberg was inspired after visiting family. “I have a granddaughter living in Tennessee. When she was born, we went down and someone [mentioned], ‘the Dolly Parton book came’.”
The book was from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program started by the country music superstar in 1995 in honor of her father, who couldn’t read. Parton, one of 10 children, knew how important books were for a child’s development, whether being read to or reading themselves. She initially wanted a way to provide one book a month to babies through preschoolers free of charge and regardless of income in her native East Tennessee, so by the time they were 5, they’d have a library of their own and be better prepared for school.
Intrigued, Rosenberg went online and researched the Imagination Library. “I discovered that it was not just in Tennessee, but nationwide.” Since its inception, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has gifted more than 180 million books, adding 1 million every month. In the U.S., the individual affiliates are statewide – like in Delaware and Arkansas – or within communities. The program has also gone international, to areas including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Republic of Ireland.
Calls to established Imagination Library affiliates, like the one in Talbot County, answered her questions, but Rosenberg realized she needed more help, so she tapped Donna Bitely, whom she knew from the Women’s Civic League of North East. Eventually an advisory committee of eight volunteers was formed. Other members include Jessica Kaley, Jan Fraser, Donna Rice. Linda Elwood, Elaine Gwiazdowski and Cathleen Zang. In 2019, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Cecil County started giving away its first books.
Rosenberg was eager to present the DPIL to the children of Cecil County. “I know there’s a need. Cecil County is in large part, a lot of Title 1 schools [schools receiving federal funding which have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students]. I mentored in elementary schools after I retired and I could see that these little children were already behind in grade 1 and grade 2.
“If, by age 3, 85 percent of our brain is developed and if there's no stimulation at age 1, 2 or 3 then you're already behind. So the research tells us how important this is. Schools do a great job, but they start at age 5. And this program starts at birth.”
The DPIL of Cecil County started with 22 children. A pilot program was developed to serve four towns in the county to see how the program was going to be accepted. Once the group realized the popularity and had some donations coming in, they were able to increase their coverage area throughout the county.
The Penguin Random House age-appropriate titles are chosen by a panel of experts, which include educators, librarians and psychologists. The books are sent every month from a warehouse in Knoxville, Tenn. and mailed via the U.S. Postal Service.
“They do select the books annually,” explained Jessica Kaley, who handles public relations and event planning for the Cecil County group. “Sometimes it's the same one. Sometimes there are new ones. But this year, every 4-year-old in the U.S., will get the same set of books. Next year, the 4-year-olds might get a different set of books, but the 5-year-olds will all get the same set of books.
“The books grow with the children and there’s a specific set of messages and themes that the books need to encompass, like inclusivity and respect,” Kaley said. “They’re not just popular books, but these are meaningful books.”
Each book also carries a message from Dolly Parton. There are also instructions about a conversation to have with the child about the book they were just read.
The goal for DPIL Cecil County in 2022 is to register 1,000 kids. But of course, operating the program takes money.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library gets bulk discounting on publishing and mailing and the administration of both, but it’s the volunteers at affiliates such as Cecil County who must register the local children and fundraise to pay for the books.
“If we are in a registration event, the parents [sometimes] find it hard to believe that they don't have to pay for this program,” said group leader Bitely. “And we stress to them, ‘No, there is no cost for this program. It's free to everyone.’ We are responsible for funding the cost, which is $25 dollars a year for each child registered. That's what our committee has to come up with. They get a book a month for one year and it's $25 that we must raise. So, that's our goal is to keep the funding going so that we can keep registering kids.”
The DPIL of Cecil County is hoping to make more connections with service clubs, businesses and corporations. A particularly satisfying partnership has been with the Conowingo Lions Club.
“They were actually one of our very first contributors,” Bitely said. “And when we met with them we explained that there were close to 200 children available in the town of Conowingo that would be eligible for the program and they gave us a very nice donation to get our program started. And they have kept in touch with us.” A recent Saturday registration event in Conowingo was also sponsored by the Lions. “We wanted to get more children from that area aware of the program,” she said.
Kaley added, “And they happily said that they would love to do it every year for us. That’s the kind of partnership that we need with more organizations, both service organizations like the Lions as well as corporations. There are plenty of businesses -- both small, local businesses as well as larger ones like the banks and Walmart – that have grant programs, that do donations to local community organizations, and we need to get our voice out there.”
One fortunate turn of events for the Imagination Libraries state-wide is Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent signing of HB 383 into law. The Young Readers Program Expansion Act, which in addition to providing books for some children in Baltimore, establishes “the Young Readers Matching Grant Program … to provide matching grants to counties affiliated services to support the establishment and operation of book gifting services.”
Plans are also in the works for a fundraising event in September 2023.
“it's going to be at the Fair Winds Farm and Stables in North East and we're very excited about it,” Kaley said. “It's going to be a Sunday afternoon; a family-friendly event with all kinds of games, pony rides and things for the grown-ups. We're just now starting to work on things like entertainment for the event and food options. We want the ticket price to be affordable so that we get everybody to come and as we start booking the entertainment and catering options, we're going to look for corporate sponsors for some of these things. So that's also going to affect the price, but that's one of the ways will be working to keep [the price] low. We want it to be affordable.”
The women are also hopeful about boosting traffic on the group’s Facebook page, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Cecil County. “There are instructions on how to donate, how to register and everything else they may need,” Kaley said.
She reflected on what they’re accomplished in four years.
“We’ve had 188 5-year-olds graduate from our program locally here in Cecil County and have mailed out 12,800 books in Cecil County alone. So we're really excited about how we've grown from nothing. We're ready, now, to take it to the next step.”
Bitely related an experience she had with someone registering a child.
“[A grandmother] called me on the phone and she said that she had two daughters, one lived in Baltimore County and one in Cecil County. ‘I'd like to register my grandchild in Cecil County,’ she said, ‘I have to tell you that growing up, my parents had books in the home, but we did not have children's books. And when I saw that my grandchildren were getting these books in the mail, well, it just did my heart so good.’
“This actually brought me to tears and she was tearful as well. She said, ‘I never had a person read me a children's story until I was in first grade and it just touched me. So when I saw that these little grandchildren of mine were getting books every single month … I can't thank you enough for what you're doing for these young children’.”
More information about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Cecil County is available on their Facebook page. Information about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is available at imaginationlibrary.com.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at [email protected].