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Smart Start Rowan partners with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

By Susan Shinn Turner

Smart Start Rowan

There’s a familiar face around Smart Start Rowan these days — none other than country music superstar Dolly Parton.

Well, OK … not exactly.

But Parton’s Imagination Library is partnering with Smart Start Rowan to get books into the hands of children to age 5, the population the local nonprofit agency serves.

A nearly life-size cutout of Parton is on display at the agency’s office. Once enrolled in the free program, children will receive a book in the mail each month until their fifth birthday.

Although eligibility is determined by ZIP code, says Amy Brown, Smart Start Rowan’s executive director, “We wanted to open it up to all ZIP codes, because there is a need throughout Rowan County. We wanted this program to include all children, because you can never give too many books to children.”

Smart Start Rowan is the local affiliate for Imagination Library, says Laura Villegas, Smart Start’s director of programs.

The program is state-funded, with money flowing to local agencies. The cost is $30 per child per year.

The Dollywood Foundation and Smart Start are working together on the project, and the foundation works with Smart Start and its local partnerships to purchase the books.

All books, Villegas said, are developmentally appropriate.

The welcome book is “The Little Engine That Could,” and the “graduation book” is kindergarten-themed “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!”

“By receiving one book every month for five years,” Villegas says, “children end up with a really nice library.”

Parton was inspired to start the program because of her father’s inability to read and write, Villegas says. With the help of local partners such as Smart Start Rowan, Imagination Library now distributes more than 1 million books each month.

Parton has said of the program, “Working together, we can help children dream more, learn more, care more, and be more.”

Brown says that Smart Start Rowan began the Imagination Library program in November.

“Our target is to register 1,200 children for the program the first year,” Brown says.

More than 800 children have signed up so far.

“At present, we are funded for two years. The state Smart Start network is eager to create a sustainable program. We have lots of community partners, including the library,” Brown says.

“Our main involvement is through promotion and community awareness,” says Melissa Oleen, a Smart Start Rowan board member and library services manager for Rowan Public Library. “Our audiences are very similar, so we are promoting the program to our customers.”

She adds, “This particular program is really a perfect fit for our mission — reaching out to young children, inspiring them, and engaging new families to read together. To me, the whole idea of getting a book in the mail is awesome.”

The enrollment application includes a brief survey. It can be found on the Smart Start Rowan website. Hard copies, in English and Spanish, are  available at the Smart Start Rowan office, 1329 S. Jake Alexander Blvd.

Families can also register through the library’s website.

“It would be great if local businesses or individuals could sponsor a child,” Villegas says. “We especially want to reach high-need families with this program, but we welcome all families.”

“It’s an easy program to understand,” Brown says. “It also dovetails nicely with our Reach Out and Read program, in which our local pediatric offices and the Health Department give books to children who are 6 months to 5 years of age.”

Smart Start Rowan also works with Rowan Reads to Newborns, which delivers books to newborns at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.

Villegas says Smart Start Rowan encourages families to read together so that children develop of love of reading early in life.

“As they grow, we want children to transition from learning to read to reading to learn,” Brown says.

Smart Start Rowan is a United Way member agency. For more information about the Imagination Library program, visit www.smartstartrowan.org or call 704-630-9085.

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