A participant in the Ojo Sarco Community Center’s Imagination Library plays with a book. Children in the program receive an age appropriate book in the mail each month and don’t have to worry about returning them. That means dog eared pages are no problem. 

Board members of the Ojo Sarco Community Center (OSCC) in New Mexico have a lot of projects that provide services in a small, frontier village of about 300 residents. None may be more important – or enjoyable – than registering children younger than 5 years in a program that introduces them to the joys of reading and owning their own books.

OSCC wants to share our experience with the Imagination Library, a program that aims to instill a love of learning and reading in children. As an all-volunteer organization, we realize that if we can implement this program, any community can also implement the Imagination Library.

Because many baby showers are held at the Ojo Sarco Community Center, we have a head start in identifying families eligible to participate in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Today, two years after we joined the Imagination Library, the program is very popular in Ojo Sarco. Thirteen children have participated, and 10 are currently enrolled – big numbers for a small community like ours.

The Dollywood Foundation makes it very easy for organizations and individuals to become affiliates and sponsor children. The Affiliate application is online, short and very straightforward. As the program expanded, it has become a partnership with book publishers. Affiliates benefit from the economics of a centralized mailing list and a distribution network that handles everything else. Once the affiliate knows how much funding it has available, it can begin enrolling children and the books start rolling.

Every child enrolled in the program receives a brand new, age appropriate book in the mail every month until their 5th birthday. The final year of books includes several to help children transition to school and be ready for kindergarten. The cost of the program averages $26 per child per year, which covers 12 new books plus postage.

The goal of the Imagination Library is to ensure that no child grows up in a bookless home.

Unlike a lot of self-proclaimed education experts that judge and tinker with educational theory and schools across the county, Dolly Parton, the genius behind Imagination Library, created an early childhood literacy program that actually works. The success of the program grows directly out of her experience as a rural child.

Dolly Parton started the program in 1996 as a way to share her success with the children of her home county in East Tennessee. She loved books as a child. Her vision was to spark the same love of reading among Sevier County, Tennessee, preschool children and their families by providing them with the gift of a specially selected book every month. The decision to mail high-quality, age-appropriate books directly to homes was brilliant. It assures that every child receive his or her own books in the home, regardless of family income.

Many rural children do not have access to libraries or bookstores. Parents might be short of cash, not readers, or not sure which books are age appropriate. With Imagination Library, children learn the magic of books – from the first book, The Little Engine that Could, all the way to the graduation book, Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come!

Currently more than 700,000 children in 1,600 communities in four countries receive a new book in the mail each and every month. The program has delivered about 50 million books since 1996.

Documenting the Benefits

A lot of research documents positive results from participation in the Imagination Library. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on early childhood and children growing up in rural poverty, was an early partner in evaluating the Imagination Library. The Casey foundation evaluation showed that the program got kids excited about books and increased the time parents spend reading to their children.

Tennessee subsidizes book distribution statewide, and West Virginia provides funding in six counties. Around the country, private and public sources every year invest nearly $11 million in the program, the foundation reports.

In New Mexico there are 23 programs, most of them in Indian nations. Currently there is an effort underway to expand the program statewide. The Grant County, New Mexico, affiliate has been working on this for several years and compiled great data showing how well the program is working in New Mexico. In October I presented a request to the New Mexico Legislature’s Education Study Committee to fund the Imagination Library statewide.

I have already seen firsthand how well Imagination Library works – and how badly the current programs are not working. It is time to try something new. This report on the Imagination Library aired on PBS’ NewsHour on May 29, 2013.

For those who take a bottom-line approach to community programs, let’s look at the Imagination Library as a cost-effective prevention program. What if spending $26 a year on a child prevents the need for far costlier interventions later? I think it is worth the experiment. Children who enter school prepared and in love with reading will do better than children who have not owned books. Doing well in school and receiving at least some post-secondary education is related to higher lifetime earnings and better health.

One surprise I had when I served as a commissioner on the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education was learning in great detail how expensive it is to support programs that help people who don’t do well in high school. One way or another, too many New Mexicans have been in our education system and exited without all of the skills essential to success. Sadly, this is true for most of the other states, and rural areas are not immune.

Playing catch-up with young adults and older learners is much more expensive than creating a strong foundation at an early age. A child is never too young to interact with books, and book ownership makes this interaction possible. Thanks to Imagination Library, hundreds of thousands of happy babies and young children are being held and read to from books they own, books they can get messy, chew on and hold lovingly with hands covered in peanut butter.

As Ms. Parton recognized, these are the gifts that keep on giving.

Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (population 300), and an advocate for “geographic democracy,” the belief that the United States should guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.

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