Put a book in the hands of a child and they hold the key to their future. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has been acting on this philosophy across America since 1995, distributing free, high-quality books to children from birth until age five, regardless of family income and at no expense to the recipients. Inspired by the organization’s national success, community leaders brought Imagination Library to the Syracuse area in 2010. What started out as a small launch targeting the city’s Northside neighborhoods has now swept the entire county – proving that the early literacy movement has found a permanent home in Central New York.
The importance of regularly reading to children from birth, and onward, cannot be overstated. Something as seemingly simple as story time actually develops the skills necessary for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn. Unfortunately, all children do not enter school at the same level of readiness.
“We know that children who enter school not ready can struggle, lose confidence and fall behind, which comes at a cost that the students, their families and our community cannot afford,” explained Virginia Carmody, development director of the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County.
Imagination Library is the centerpiece of a broader community literacy plan spearheaded by the Literacy Coalition. Through collaboration with the Central New York Community Foundation, enrollment data is being collected and organized by census tract so that target areas can be established. For example, in one census tract on the Northside of Syracuse, only about 25 percent of children are deemed “ready” for kindergarten. In response, the Literacy Coalition and its partners have worked to enroll more than 60 percent of eligible children within this census tract into Imagination Library.
This approach is helping put books in the hands of those who need it most. By analyzing which census tracts have low enrollment, Imagination Library is able to set goals for reaching those in greatest need of its services. However, these targeted goals do not aim to exclude. All children up to the age of five who reside in Onondaga County are eligible to enroll in Imagination Library.
“We now mail books to over 15,000 kids each month and have distributed more than half a million age-appropriate books,” said Carmody.
The expansion of Imagination Library is also indebted to Onondaga County, the City of Syracuse and the Reisman Foundation for their continued support as well as many community referral partners who help connect families with young children to the program. Local birthing hospitals, Catholic Charities, InterFaith Works, Head Start, Syracuse Housing Authority and Onondaga County’s Departments of Children & Families and Health all partner with Imagination Library in an effort to ensure as many children as possible are exposed to this opportunity.
“Supporting Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has been a powerful way to make a lasting impact on the lives of thousands of children and families in our community,” said Carmody. “These are some of the most formative years for children.”
A child’s early education – pre-kindergarten through third grade – is a crucial period considered to be predictive of their success in the future. The books provided by Imagination Library help instill a love for reading in the hearts and minds of children that will hopefully endure through early childhood and beyond.