MOUNT VERNON — Since 2010, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, through United Way, has been providing Knox County children, up to age 5, with their very own library of books.
The program has grown steadily in Knox County, according to United Way Program Coordinator Lisa Rutter. In 2010 the program started with just 20 children, but now reaches 1,900 kids a month, she explained.
Each month, from the time a child is born and signed up for the program until age 5, children will receive a book, curated to be age appropriate, in the mail that is addressed directly to the child. Being part of the Imagination Library program is completely free to parents and available to all children living in Knox County up to age 5, regardless of their parents’ income or situation, Rutter explained. Signing children up is as simple as going online to uwayknox.org and visiting the programs tab. Registration forms can be printed off online and mailed into United Way of Knox County or filled out at the United Way of Knox County offices at 305 E High St. in Mount Vernon.
Once applications are received, children begin to receive one book a month starting with Dolly Parton’s favorite book, “The Little Engine That Could.” Books are grouped by age, meaning that infants start out with board books that use beginner words and bright pictures. As the child ages, the reading levels rise until the month the child turns 5 when they “graduate the program” and receive their final book, “Kindergarten, Here I Come.”
Allison Stepp-Baughman, a mother of two two-and-a-half-year-old identical twin daughters who have been in the program since they were just one month old, said that her daughters love receiving their books each month.
“They are always excited when they get the new book in the mail,” Stepp-Baughman said, explaining that the two are able to tell which book belongs to them because they recognize the first letter of their names. “They [each] get the same [book] each month, which is good because we’d have a knock-down drag out if we didn’t. ‘Llama, Llama, Red Pajama’ is their favorite by far. But there haven’t been any that they haven’t liked.
“It jump-starts them in a way that just letting them watch television would not,” Stepp-Baughman continued. “A lot of them are curated to bring some diversity to a book collection. You can never have too many books.”
Jen Gotschall said that she and her husband, Nick, along with their four children, have all enjoyed being part of the program. Her two oldest children have aged out of the program but now help their younger siblings with reading as well. Each month when new books come her children are ready to sit down and read the book right away. And though all four of her children have been or are in the program.
“My husband and I already had an interest in reading and wanted to cultivate that [in our children], but its kind of served as an incentive to keep that interest alive,” Gotschall explained.
And though the family has gotten a few repeated titles, overall Gotschall said, many of the books have differed from child to child and introduced the family to new concepts and cultures and to stories that Gotschall herself wouldn’t have necessarily picked out if she were shopping for books.
Rutter explained that children who are in the program from the time they are born until age five gather a library of 60 books. Currently, United Way serves 70 percent of the eligible population of Knox County’s children, but said she would like to see that number grow. In fact, according to Rutter, Knox County’s program serves more children than the program in Dolly Parton’s hometown because of the strong community support and the drive to get information about the program into the hands of parents and guardians.
The program in Knox County, thanks largely to the support the program receives from area donors, is consistently repopulating and available to any child that is eligible. Each month as children graduate from the program, new births and new sign-ups are coming in to take their place.
Rutter noted that she often hears from parents that don’t want to sign their children up because they are worried about taking the resources from other children, but explained that, thanks to the support that the program receives from area donors, the program is able to accommodate all eligible children in Knox County if they sign up. Rutter also noted that each book costs $2.10 a piece so parents who want to give back are able to cover their child’s costs with a $25 yearly donation. Stepp-Baughman also said that she has heard of parents who have donated the books once their children are done with them, to other families, to daycare centers and to Children’s Hospital.
“Kids are expensive and books are getting even more expensive, so first of all it’s a nice little thing that you can do for your kids that you might not be able to afford to do otherwise,” Stepp-Baughman said. “We’re also really lucky here in Knox County, a lot of the surrounding counties do not have access to the imagination library. We’re really lucky that the generosity of the community allows them to continue the program.”