Everyone loves getting mail, especially kids. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, working through local groups, is expanding early literacy in Juneau by sending every kid under the age of 5 a book every month.
"We hear from parents and some of our partners that when kids get their books in the mail they are really excited," said Joy Lyon, executive director of Association for the Education of Young People - Southeast Alaska. "They are going to the mailbox every day looking for the book ... It's unique in that kids don't generally get mail addressed to them and when they do, it's just lights up their day."
AEYC runs the library, which gets heavy support from many groups in the community such as Communities in Schools Juneau, United Way of Southeast Alaska, Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries, Best Beginnings and Barlett Beginnings.
In August 2006, a representative for the Imagination Library headed to Nome was invited to Juneau to give a presentation.
"We decided right there we were going to do it," Lyon said.
The program, which was launched in Juneau in November 2006, has since spread to Angoon, Kake, Craig, Klawock and Wrangell.
Currently 882 children are enrolled. Parents of children born at Bartlett Regional Hospital are automatically sent letters of enrollment, and enrollment events are held at public libraries and Head Start programs. AEYC is actually looking to expand automatic enrollment offers to include children born at the SEARHC hospital in Sitka.
The program, funded through sponsorships of local groups, businesses and individuals, had 48 community sponsors last year. AEYC also received a $2,700 grant from United Way Southeast and at $9,600 grant from Best Beginnings. All the money goes into buying books and enrollment events and the work is done entirely through volunteers.
"We went out there on a limb, not knowing how we'd be able to keep it going," Lyon said. "So far the community has just been really generous in stepping up and keeping the train rolling for books to keep coming to children."
A survey of 200 parents conducted by the AEYC in 2005 indicated that 50 percent read to their children every day. An identical survery done in 2007, a year after the program started, revealled that 76 percent were reading to their children.
And that difference is importance, because early literacy is tied to dropout rates, Lyon said. Children with thousands of hours reading with their parents are way ahead when they start preschool than children who don't read and may not even have books in their house. The children often can't catch up.
To promote early literacy, AEYC also hosts family nights at the downtown library, where guest readers are invited and activities and refreshments are provided for the parents and their kids.
"A lot of the people who come haven't been to the library before," Lyon said. "They're getting their first library cards. Their kids are getting their first library cards. It's something we know is making a long-lasting impact on kids learning to love reading."
In 1996, Dolly Parton launched the first Imagination Library in Sevier County, Tenessee. Every child under 5 received a book once a month starting with "The Little Engine that Could" and ending with "Kindergarten Here I Come."
In March 2000, Parton unveiled a plan to expand the Imagination Library to other communities around the U.S. Nome was the first city in Alaska to start an Imagination Library, but it has since spread throughout Southeast and to Anchorage, Mat-Su, Fairbanks and other areas. Best Beginnings, ConocoPhillips and others are looking at expanding the program statewide.
"And once we go statewide officially, Dolly Parton has committed to come up and do a concert," Lyon said.