In the community

Dolly Parton and local group sending free books to kids younger than 5

Nearly 800 Malheur County children younger than 5 will get a free book each month this year, thanks to a partnership between local literacy advocates and country music star Dolly Parton. 

The partnership began between Friends of the Library in Ontario and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in 2017. Four Rivers Healthy Community was brought in to expand the effort throughout Malheur County, and last year it was extended into Idaho’s Payette and Washington counties, according to Kelly Poe, a member of the local nonprofit’s leadership board.

The Imagination Library mails one book a month to each enrolled child from birth to kindergarten. Poe said Four Rivers estimates roughly 2,000 children across the region will receive books this year. 

The Imagination Library obtains the age-appropriate books, handles book selection and distribution, negotiates wholesale pricing for the books and pays for administrative expenses, while the community partners enroll the children and raise funds to pay for the books.

According to the Imagination Library webpage, parents are never asked to pay for the books their children receive. 

To help fund the program, Four Rivers Healthy Community will hold a used book sale from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at the Portia Club, 225 N. Ninth St. in Payette.

The organization anticipates the local cost will be $50,000, which works out to about $25 per child for 2,000 kids receiving 12 books each.

Parton established the Imagination Library in 1995 to honor her father, who never learned to read or write, according to the organization’s website. 

Poe, who retired in December as the longtime director of early learning at the Malheur Education Service District, said the monthly books encourage families to read with their children. 

A 2019 study out of the Ohio State University Department of Educational Studies found that kids whose parents read one book a day to their children will have heard nearly 300,000 words by age 5. 

The Dolly Parton book club not only promotes early literacy in the county, but also invests in the workforce. Poe said kids who have early literacy skills as they enter kindergarten do better in academics and, in turn, are more employable and are able to contribute to the county’s workforce. 

Poe said Four Rivers Healthy Community seeks to enroll more families in the program as some children age out of the Imagination Library each month. 

Those interested in the program can enroll online, or contact Poe at 208-230-0648. 

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