Lynda Harrill, Crozet resident and founder of the successful QuickStart Tennis of Central Virginia program for school-age children, has channeled her passion for childhood literacy into a new initiative developed by famed singer Dolly Parton called Imagination Library.
“Twenty-six years ago, Parton decided she was going to give books to kids who lived in the county where she grew up in Tennessee, through a program within her foundation that she called Imagination Library,” said Harrill. “They give books to kids every month from birth to five years old. At this point it’s a really big deal—they’ve got like two million kids signed up.
“They have a committee every year that curates a collection of books for each age group, and the book is mailed directly to the kid’s house each month,” she said. “The first book she sends to everybody, regardless of age, is The Little Engine That Could, because that was part of her inspiration for the whole thing. It’s a local nonprofit, so local people raise money and administer the program by helping people apply for their kids to enroll. Then the foundation does the rest, purchasing and sending out the books.”
Harrill’s dive into Parton’s program was spurred during the pandemic when kids could not get together as usual. “We had already gotten into the literacy business with our preschoolers that we work with through QuickStart Tennis. I said, well, we can’t play tennis with them, but we can get these kids books! I got a map of third grade reading scores in the state of Virginia, and out of the 30 school systems we deal with, 15 had literacy levels below 70%. There was only one whose scores were above 90%, and that was Highland County, a small rural county. I called them up to see what they were doing, and among other things they had a chapter of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and they felt that it was really effective.”
Combined with Harrill’s own books program—Racquets for Reading, which gives books to pre-K and kindergarten kids—Imagination Library will create what Harrill calls a “reading pathway” from birth through kindergarten. “That’s really important because the research says that if a kid reads at grade level by the end of kindergarten, they’re probably going to read at grade level in third grade, and that’s the really critical point. It’s so important that they hit that school readiness benchmark.”
To make connections and find donors, Harrill does her research. She tracked down an Ohio-based man named Jed Davies who had roots in Culpeper and had been running Dolly Parton’s program in Ohio school districts for the past six or seven years. It was doing so well that the state of Ohio now funds chapters statewide. “They have 290,000 kids signed up there,” she said. “Davies decided to redirect some of the funds he had raised there to his hometown of Culpeper down here, and we launched a chapter this year—we have over 700 kids signed up so far.”
Harrill’s enthusiasm has spread locally, as a small chapter in Charlottesville has now agreed to expand the program to all of Albemarle county after she helped with their fund-raising and grant-writing. “In Virginia we have just over 20,000 kids signed up now, with chapters in Loudoun County, Mecklenburg County, all over—it’s really boiling up. In the meantime, I’ve raised funds to start a chapter in Buckingham County and we’re working on organizing others in Rappahannock, Prince Edward, Appomattox, and Nelson Counties.”
Harrill said that funding a student for Imagination Library costs about $2.10 per book per month, or a little over $25 per child per year—the Dolly Parton organization does the job of maintaining the database, purchasing the books, and coordinating the mailings. “They choose a lot of classics, like Peppa Pig and Clifford the Big Red Dog, along with modern books,” she said. “Testing in Ohio showed that kids who have participated in the Imagination Library program averaged fifteen points higher in their third grade reading scores.”
Her goal is to start enough local chapters and demonstrate their success so that the state will eventually fund chapters in every county. “Think about all the money they spend on [reading] remediation of older school kids, which is accessible only about 40% of the time, when you could be funding something preventative and supportive like this, right?”
Once books are in the hands of kids, then comes the tougher part, says Harrill. “The critical part is that we have to convince the parents that they need to read with those kids. I’d say only 10 to 15 minutes a day, that’s the minimum, because if they do that and the parent and the kid have fun doing it, then they’re going to do it more.” She was astounded to learn how few books kids actually own in low income communities. “The statistic is only one age-appropriate book for every 300 kids in those situations. That is just incredible. We can do better.”
Anyone interested in helping to start local chapters or fundraising for existing chapters of Imagination Library can contact Harrill at Quickstart [email protected].