Smart Start Rowan bringing Imagination Library to local children

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By John Gerstenmier
For the Salisbury Post
Ask any kindergarten teacher about reading readiness. They know some students are eager for the experience, others are not. A key readiness indicator is the love of reading, a desire that begins before children reach their first birthday.
Smart Start Rowan, a children and family service agency on Jake Alexander Boulevard, knows the love of reading is the first step toward success in school, work and life. They want to kindle that love in all Rowan County children. One way is to get age-appropriate books into homes of babies, toddlers and preschoolers ó children from birth to age 5 ó and to encourage parents to nurture reading readiness. The idea is simple: children are made readers on the laps of their parents.
There is no better way to put that simple idea into practice than Imagination Library, says Smart Start Rowan’s Director of Programs Laura Villegas. This unique library was pioneered by legendary singer/songwriter Dolly Parton. In 1996, with her own funds, she bought and then mailed a book each month to every child under 5 living in Sevier County. That’s Dolly’s home county in eastern Tennessee. The books went to every home regardless of the parent’s income and continued until the child reached age 5.
The program was so successful that Dolly expanded it to Branson, Mo., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., locales where she owned businesses. That expansion involved a blue ribbon panel of experts that selected just the right books and Penguin Group USA, the book’s publisher. Dolly paid for the Branson and Myrtle Beach books herself and then developed a way for others to partner with her in bringing Imagination Library to their communities.
As the local affiliate of the Dolly Parton Foundation, Smart Start Rowan is making Imagination Library available in Rowan County. Like Dolly’s effort, the goal is to reach every child in the county. That’s 10,258 children. At $30 per child per year, the tab comes to $307,740.
“We don’t have the budget to do that,” Villegas said. “But we do have a $4,000 literacy grant from the Peeler Foundation to make it available to 150 families.”
Selected to inaugurate Rowan’s Imagination Library are participants in two local groups: Good Beginnings, a program for teenage mothers sponsored by the Adolescent and Family Enrichment Council, and De Madres A Madres (From Mothers to Mothers), a Latino education and outreach group organized by Smart Start Rowan. Imagination Library is offered at no cost to the children in these groups. Those who accept are then taught how to share the books at bedtime, sing or talk about the pictures, connect the story to the child’s family and make the story come alive by voicing the characters.
Families can join Imagination Library by paying the $30 fee for their own child. And anyone ó an individual or business ó can sponsor a child from the waiting list whose mother is not a member of Good Beginnings or De Madres. Those interested in a free membership need only complete a short application. Currently there are 20 children on the Imagination Library waiting list and this number is growing weekly.
“When a business or individual sponsors a child, we pull one child off the waiting list,” said Villegas. At a recent meeting of the Smart Start board of directors, Villegas asked the members to help reduce the Imagination Library waiting list. Board members dug into their wallets and checkbooks and sponsored 11 needy children. That simple act of good will cut the waiting list in half.
The growing waiting list can be further reduced by contributions from individuals and businesses. With a potential to enroll 10,000 children birth to 5 in Rowan County, the waiting list is growing! Request a brochure with a donation form by calling Laura Villegas at 704-603-3368 or e-mailing her at or visiting the Smart Start Rowan web page at It has more information about Imagination Library, De Madres and other Smart Start Rowan programs for families of children birth to 5.
Gerstenmier is executive director of Smart Start Rowan.