It was serendipitous that Joe Persia would pick up a Rotarian publication with the face of Dolly Parton and the caption “The Book Lady” on the cover. Dolly Parton started the Imagination Library in 1996 as a way to help children learn to read and to improve literacy in her community. The program had positive results right away and began to grow across the United States, Canada and now all over the world. Children can be enrolled in the program starting at birth. Each month they receive a free, age-appropriate book in the mail until their 5th birthday. Having books in a child’s home works to help children learn to read and also encourages families to spend more time together.
Coincidentally, Joe was studying for his PhD in the area of Reading Education and had become interested specifically in early learning and literacy. “The article about a book gifting program aimed at specifically improving reading readiness and the love of literature was timely indeed. Upon reading the article I thought it would be a great way for the Rotary Club in which I belong to, to take a unique project and sponsor a program that would pay enormous and tangible benefits right here in our own community.”
Persia contacted the Imagination Library administrator in Canada, Catriona Sturton, who suggested finding someone to act as a program administrator. After asking around, the name Sharon Brooks was suggested to Joe Persia. “I was approached by Joe to partner in this innovative project. The Kids Can Fly Board was immediately keen to get involved as it was a project that totally fit our mandate”, said Brooks. Joe joined the Kids Can Fly Board and immediately contacted Sunrise Rotary for support of the program. Sunrise Rotary agreed to help, and committed to $10,000 a year for three years. Since being introduced in Brantford-Brant, close to 400 children have been enrolled in the Imagination Library. The Kids Can Fly Board continued to look for ways to expand the program locally.
As a result, Joe, Sharon, Kids Can Fly Chair Jeanne Smitiuch, and Board member Lisa Collins all went to Tennessee for the Imagination Library Homecomin’ Conference in June of 2011. “We thought we knew a lot about this project before the conference and were blown away by the additional ways Imagination Library can impact a community. The research to date is showing that children are flourishing and parents are getting more involved with reading and interacting with their kids after the books started arriving from Imagination Library”, says Brooks.
Jeanne Smitiuch is leading the Imagination Library sub-committee for Kids Can Fly. She came back from the conference with a goal to have every child from 0-5 enrolled in the program in Brantford-Brant. “Studies prove that reading to a child improves their school readiness, increases the parent-child bond and is crucial in language development”, said Smitiuch. Kids Can Fly is now using Imagination Library as a point of contact with new parents so that, in the future, the organization can provide support for parents such as information on brain development, ways to get a child ready for school and to inform them of other community events and early learning programs. The organization’s mandate is to help all children in the community reach their maximum potential.
“Brant has a 28% drop out rate for high school students. Studies show that 25% of children are not ready when they start kindergarten. These statistics directly relate to each other. Other branches of Imagination Library throughout the world have researched the impact of the program in their community and overwhelmingly see an improvement in kindergarten readiness, Grade 3 testing scores and high school success. Grade 3 marks and absenteeism predicts high school drop-out rates with 90% accuracy. These grade 3 test scores are so important that some U.S. states actually use the scores to determine budgets for jails in the future.” Joe, Jeanne, Sharon and the rest of the Kids Can Fly Board are now faced with the challenge of raising awareness to generate funding to expand the program. Fortunately, Sunrise Rotary has continued to fund $10,000 per year and the Friday Rotary Club has given additional funding. As well, the program has gained financial support from The Stedman Foundation, the Brant Community Foundation, individual donors, and other community grants.
The plan is to fundraise more throughout the winter and open up registration in April to add more children to the program. It costs $5.25 per month per child for the Imagination Library. Their goal is to raise approximately $246,000 each year to cover the cost of 5600 children enrolled in the program in Brantford-Brant. According to the World Bank, for every dollar you spend on early learning, you save $17 in the future. Simply put, success in school leads to success in work, which equals success in life.
“We came back from the conference more motivated than ever to make sure this program continues to be available to children in our community”, says Persia. “We have immense support and endorsement from our school boards, partner agencies and libraries. No one could dispute the value of Imagination Library. The challenge is to secure additional funding to offer it locally”, adds Brooks. The organization is also encouraging parents, grandparents and employers to sponsor children in the program. General donations can be made, or a child can be named to specifically be enrolled in the program.