BY KATIE MATTESON
Did you know that if your child is a resident of Racine County, he or she can receive a free book once a month from birth through age 4?
The Imagination Library, launched by Dolly Parton in 1996 to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families, celebrates its 10th birthday in Racine County this year.
“I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my Daddy,” Parton said in a letter on the program’s website. “He was the smartest man I have ever known but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams.”
With funding from local sponsors, United Way of Racine County introduced the program in Burlington in conjunction with the opening of its new office there in 2009 and served children west of Interstate 94.
In 2015, United Way expanded the program to include two zip codes (53403 and 53405) east of I-94 and in June 2016 covered the entire county.
According Joanee Meyerhofer, who’s been coordinator for the program since 2010, 4,827 children are currently enrolled (as of May 7, 2019) and 3,572 students have graduated. She said that 176,108 books have been mailed to local families since 2009.
The Dollywood Foundation takes care of all book storage and directly ships the books to the children.
The cost of books and mailing is $30 per child, per year. Current sponsors include SC Johnson, InSinkErator, Twin Disc, Racine County and Lavelle.
The program is offered at no cost no matter what the family’s income, and siblings each receive their own set of books.
“The secret sauce is encouraging parental engagement,” Meyerhofer said. “The kids get so excited, they want to read the books over and over again.”
She knows this firsthand, as her two children participated in the program.
Meyerhofer explained that “The Little Engine That Could” is the first book received by each child, no matter what age they begin the program and “Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come” is the final book before graduation.
In between, age-appropriate books are chosen by a Blue Ribbon Committee of early childhood reading experts from around the world who meet for a week to review hundreds of books on an annual basis.
United Way president Rodney Prunty shared that early literacy is a huge predictor of future educational success.
“Kindergarten teachers can easily determine on the first day school which students were exposed to pre-literacy.” Prunty said. He cited a study showing that students living in homes with at least 20 books outperformed their peers without access to books.
Amanda Bulgrin’s son Rob Grohs underwent an amazing transformation in his language skills during his participation in Imagination Library.
“At 3 years old, Rob was still non-verbal. We enrolled him in the special education program at Union Grove Elementary School, and at the recommendation of his teacher, we signed him up for Imagination Library. While we had always been a family that read together, the books put a renewed focus on reading.
“Through Imagination Library, Rob received the book “Llama Llama Mad at Mama” and it became an immediate favorite. Soon after, at the age of 4, Rob said “mama” for the first time. Very shortly after, he started bringing me the book and shouting “LLAMA.” Once he conquered the word “llama” his confidence grew and his communication skills improved dramatically.
“Rob is now in fifth grade at Union Grove Elementary School and is reading at his grade level, is academically caught up with his peers and receives minimal support. He still loves llamas and wants to be a farmer when he grows up. I attribute his significant growth to his teachers, his outstanding work ethic and the Imagination Library, which gave him the confidence he needed to become a successful communicator.”
Meyerhofer said that 38 percent of the county’s children under 5 are currently enrolled in the program. She estimated that each month she enrolls an average of 164 children and about 85 children graduate.
In celebration of the program’s 10th anniversary, United Way of Racine County is launching a campaign this summer to raise funds to meet the needs of the growing enrollment in the program. Sponsors will offer matching grants.
The campaign sponsors are Lavelle, Johnson Financial Group, Thrivent Burlington and an anonymous donor. The community match campaign’s goal is $40,000. To make a contribution, visit unitedwayracine.org.
For more information, contact Joanee Meyerhofer at (262) 210-1975 or email@example.com.