Imagine the Possibilities: Books for Every Child in Lewis County through Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

Commentary by Brian Mittge, The Chronicle

Country music legend Dolly Parton grew up as poor as a leafless winter tree, which has fired her lifelong desire to give back to those in need, or just those who would benefit from the gift.

In 1995, inspired by her father, who never learned to read or write, she created her Imagination Library, which gives a free book every month to every child, from birth to age 5, in communities with local support. This program isn’t just for the poor. There is no income limit attached to it — absolutely any and all young children are eligible and can (and should!) be signed up. The program was born in Parton’s home community of Sevier County in east Tennessee. It now spans four nations, and each month her “library” mails out more than a million books, all carefully picked to be age appropriate for the recipient. So far, the program has given away more than 130 million books! It’s incredibly exciting that a number of generous local visionaries have stepped up to the plate, making Lewis County the latest area to become part of this remarkable program.

The three Rotary Clubs of Centralia and Chehalis, along with United Way of Lewis County, deserve a huge round of applause for donating thousands of dollars and countless organizational hours to make this program a reality in our community.

Already, hundreds of Lewis County youngsters have been signed up. On Thursday, Rotary volunteers and United Way staff were on hand at the Chehalis and Centralia libraries to sign up parents — and there was a steady stream of moms, dads and young future readers streaming into the library. One of them was Amanda Hammond, a mother of five, who was signing up her youngest daughter, Evalin, 3.  “We do a lot of reading at home,” Hammond said. “She loves being read to.” When Evalin was asked what she thinks of reading, she thought for a moment and said, “Great!”

David Eatwell, president of the Chehalis Rotary Club, was on hand welcoming parents. He said this program will help change Lewis County for generations to come. The idea was born with Centralia’s John Elmore, said Eatwell. “We were looking at something long-term that would really make a difference,” Eatwell said. “This can actually change Lewis County for the better.” Debby Fruitman, a member of the Twin Cities Rotary, agreed, saying she jumped at the idea of supporting the project. “This is the best thing that can happen for the future success of a child as well as the community,” Fruitman said. 

As I chatted with the Rotarians, more parents came in — 18 in the first hour alone, Fruitman said.

Chelle Wilder, Centralia, registered her child. “I think it’s awesome,” Wilder said. “It’ll promote reading and family time, and screen-free time.”

Linda Breen, executive assistant at United Way of Lewis County, was also on hand. She said further outreach events will be held at rural schools and libraries. United Way is also working with local hospitals to ensure that every new parent hears about this program. They’re also reaching out to Twin Transit to put information onto buses.

There will be ongoing costs to continue the program. The local Rotary Clubs have committed to supporting it in the years ahead. Anyone in Lewis County can donate to sponsor a year of books for $25 per child, or only $125 to ensure that a child has books for a full five years. As Breen points out, that cost is essentially just paying for postage — Parton’s foundation pays for the books. 

My children are all too old for this program, but that’s OK. We spent many hundreds of happy hours reading together. I still read with them before bed each night. Parton once wrote a children’s book based on her “Coat of Many Colors” song — I remember reading that book with my own kids. My wife and I began reading with our young ones on the very first day we brought them home from the hospital. Are they too young for reading as newborns? I don’t think so. They respond to the images on the page, and they love the warm, comforting feeling of sitting on your lap with a book. 

It’s never too early to read with your kids (and it’s never too late to start, if this isn’t yet a strong tradition in your household.) The younger a child becomes a reader, the stronger they will be in school, and the more likely they are to graduate. Investment in reading to children before they can read is powerful. It’s truly life-changing. It even brings to mind one of Dolly Parton’s greatest songs, which — thanks to her Imagination Library — countless local children will soon feel about reading and lifelong learning: “I will always love you.”