Braxton, a child in Malheur County who participated in the program, sits surrounded by all the books he received through the Imagination Library. (Submitted photo)

ONTARIO – More Malheur County children will soon have access to free books, all thanks to Dolly Parton and a group of tenacious local agencies and volunteers. 

Kids throughout the county are now eligible for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program, which provide books for children from birth until their fifth birthday. 

“We know that investing in the life of a child before the age of 5 is critical to their success in adulthood, especially in areas such as literacy,” said Kelly Poe, director of early learning for the Malheur Education Service District.  

Children registered for the program receive a free book in the mail every month. The program has existed in Ontario through the nonprofit Ontario Friends of the Library since 2018. 

But demand was high, with requests coming in from Vale, Nyssa and other communities. One problem: Friends of the Library didn’t have enough money for books for children outside the Ontario library district. 

Volunteers spent months planning and searching for a bigger sponsoring group locally. Four Rivers Healthy Community stepped up, raising money from the Eastern Oregon Early Learning Hub and a patchwork of businesses and individual donors. The program received a grant from the James and Shirley Rippey Family Foundation, covering half the cost of the roughly $2 per book.

About 330 children have now signed up – an increase of roughly 100 in about a week since the expansion was announced two weeks ago. 

Sherri Hironaka, a retired educator and Friends of the Library executive board member, said the group has wanted to expand the program's reach since it kicked off in the county. 

“Almost everybody on the board is an ex-school teacher. Literacy is really important to us and we know there’s a lot of kids in our county that don’t have a lot of books on their shelves,” Hironaka said.  

Feedback from parents is positive, she added. One mother recently shared a photo of her 5-year-old son sitting on the couch surrounded by all the books he had received from the program.

The books are special, said Hironaka because they’re age appropriate, high-quality books personalized for each child. 

“Because of Dolly Parton, it’s really affordable,” added Poe. “It costs us about $2 per book per month.”

Parton, the country music singer, launched the program in 1995. She started out mailing books only in her home state of Tennessee, but the program expanded over the years and now mails more than one million books a month throughout the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. 

“I think it’s going to be a really fun project for a business to get on board with because it’s so tangible,” Poe said. The group hopes to secure enough funding to provide the program in Payette County. 

“We have the opportunity to do it in Idaho but we haven’t raised the money,” Poe said. 

Registration forms will be available at libraries once the “stay at home” orders are lifted and libraries reopen. But parents can also register online at the Imagination Library website. There is no income eligibility, but addresses are verified. Families with several children can sign up for each individual child. 

Those wishing to support the program can click the donate button on the Four Rivers Healthy Community website at 4rhc.org.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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