In early 1995, The New York Times bestsellers list featured three seemingly unrelated books: Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, where the pope speaks of pain, poverty and salvation, among other things; Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s controversial The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence determines an individual’s social and economic standing; and Dolly, the autobiography of Dolly Parton, which addressed matters papal and controversial with the singer’s Tennessee-accented humor. Example: “If I tried to jog with these boobs, I’d end up with two black eyes.”
The three books had more in common than strikes the eye. “If there’s one positive thing about being poor, it’s that it makes a person more creative. None of us kids ever had store-bought toys to play with when we were growing up,” Parton wrote in her autobiography, remembering her years growing up in the Smoky Mountain backwoods of Sevier County in eastern Tennessee. (Her latest album, incidentally, is “Backwoods Barbie.”) How poor was she? “Well, I’ll put it this way. The ants used to bring back food they’d taken from us because they felt sorry for us.” Parton never forgot those roots, nor that threshold she crossed. Just as poignantly: she hasn’t forgotten those who haven’t been able to cross the threshold—and not, as the Murrays of the world suggest, for lack of intelligence. There are such things as opportunities, helping hands, even luck.
Dolly’s Coat of Many Donors
Parton has made a point of ensuring that others had those things too, in so far as she could provide them. At least in her backyard. In her words, she wanted to “put her money where her mouth is – and with such a big mouth that’s a pretty large sum of money.”
And so in 1995 she started something unique in Sevier County, through her Dollywood Foundation. Every single child born in the county would get a free book, every month, from birth until that child enrolled in kindergarten. Not junky hand-me-downs or paperbacks, but quality hard-covers. And a bookcase to boot. The first book for every child would be The Little Engine That Could, the American classic of childhood optimism that’s been appearing in one version or another since 1910. The last title would always be Nancy Carlson’s Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come. For Sevier County alone, the project would entail giving away a quarter million books in five years, for $1 million.
By 2004, the program had spread to every one of Tennessee’s 95 counties, with Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen boosting the program with the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, which helps fund it. Between 2004 and last July, 10.1 million books had been delivered, free, to children in Tennessee alone. Parton’s Imagination Library has long since jumped Tennessee’s borders, spreading to virtually every state in the Union, to Canada and to Great Britain. By the end of 2009, some 1,068 counties or communities were part of the program, with 561,000 children enrolled. In 2009 alone, 6.2 million books were distributed, for a total of 23 million books distributed since the Imagination Library launched in 1995.
Kickoff At the Flagler Library
Next Wednesday (Sept. 1), the Imagination Library is getting its Flagler County kick-off at the Flagler County Library on Belle Terre Blvd. in Palm Coast.
Parton won’t be there, but a letter from her, directly to the Flagler County community, will be read. Nicole Brose, executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation—a leading “champion” of the local initiative—recently spoke to the Dolly Parton Foundation’s director about Flagler’s condition these days (the high unemployment, the high proportion of children on free and reduced lunches, the fact that many children can’t afford a book to read before bed). “She just felt like wow, this could be a game changer for our community,” Brose said of the foundation director, who was compelled to get a letter from Parton addressing Flagler directly.
The event, featuring—what else—milk and cookies along with plenty of book chat and remembrances of favorite reads past, is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Future parents can learn about the program. Pregnant mothers can register their coming newborns there or at the program’s website. Any child born on or after Sept. 1 may be registered as long as the child’s family lives in Flagler County. That child will then receive a book a month, free, by mail, until kindergarten.
Leadership Flagler’s Initiative
The local version of the program was developed by the 18th class of Leadership Flagler, the local version of a national program that, once a week for three months a year, puts a small class of community members with leadership aspirations through a rigorous set of experiences designed to hone leadership skills. The local version, organized through the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, has graduated some 180 individuals since its inception in 1993. Each class designs a signature “homework” project. Bringing Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to Flagler was this year’s homework. The idea originated with John Birney of JBirney Financial in Flagler Beach.
“I was involved in the creation of it in Putnam and St. Johns County, because I served on the Early Learning Coalition in Putnam/St. Johns and I’m a past chairman of the chamber up there,” Birney said. He spent two years coordinating it in those two counties. The program launched in May 2008 and has since enrolled 2,200 children. He’s hoping for a repeat performance in Flagler. “It’s amazing that we’ve been able to bring together all these community champions through that leadership class. March 5 is not that long ago,” Birney said of the origin of the effort.
Besides Birney, the 14-member class included the chamber’s Heather Edwards, Alicia Casas of United Way, Patty Hoskins of TeamLogic IT of Flagler, Chuck Hoerner of Brighthouse Networks, Tim O’Donnell of Home Helpers, and others. Various members of the group have been collecting proclamations and recognitions from local governments, most recently from the Bunnell City Commission and the Flagler Beach City Commission.
Putting Flagler’s Money Where Its Heart Is
Making the program accessible to local children isn’t cheap. Penguin Group USA, the book publisher, provides the books. Parton’s foundation, Hoskins says, “pays for all the books, for the printing, for everything. We as a county pay for the brochures, basically, advertising the program. The fundraising that we do is to let the public know that we have this opportunity here.” And the $30 per child required to pay for postage and delivery of the books. So the program does depend on local sponsors and donors, and of course on coordinators and administrators—so-called Community Champions. The fund-raising goal this year is $25,000. (Flagler’s Rotary Club has already donated $1,000. Bright House Networks and Craig-Flagler Palms Funeral Home have also written large checks.)
Community Champions include the Early learning Coalition, which will devote an employee to enrolling every child in the program, the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, plus United Way, the Flagler County Education Foundation and the Flagler County Public Library. The education foundation is the program’s fiscal agent: it’ll administer and audit the funds and lead the fund-raising. The imagination library will also become the foundation’s signature literacy initiative.
“Oprah’s done more for books than Bob Dole’s done for Viagra,” Dolly Parton said at the National Press Club 10 years ago, when she spoke of the Imagination Library’s national reach. Ten years on, she could safely say that she has done more for early-childhood reading than Oprah, as her famous coat of many colors continues to thread into an epic of generosity and imagination. Flagler’s is its latest chapter.