IRON RANGE — Imagination Library is one of United Way of Northeastern Minnesota’s (UWNEMN) most popular programs—and also its best kept secret, according to UWNEMN Executive Director Erin Shay.
“Many people know and love Imagination Library,” Shay said. “But very few people know that our local United Way provides the program on the Iron Range.”
Country music icon Dolly Parton launched Imagination Library in 1995 in her hometown in Tennessee to foster a love of reading among children and their families. The program mails a free book each month to a child under the age of 5, ensuring every child as access to reading resources in their home regardless of their family’s income.
The program expanded as a nationwide initiative in 2000, relying on local affiliates to enroll children, pay for the books and postage, and promote the program. UWNEMN brought the program to the Iron Range in 2008. More than 360,000 Imagination Library books have been delivered to local children since that time.
The Minnesota Department of Education’s Early Childhood Indicators of Progress start at birth and address areas of development like social and emotional, language, and approaches to learning. No matter the stage, reading plays a role, according to Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) parent pducator Judy Kelly.
A child learns better by listening, by seeing, by talking, or even by touching, and “books can do all of that,” she said.
“It goes hand-in-hand to talk about books and learning and indicators of progress,” Kelly noted.
Reading is important in Merritt Elementary preK educator Ashley Friedlieb’s classroom, where she implements a daily story time, which students love, but it’s important outside of the classroom, too.
“We really encourage parents that the best thing they can do for their child’s education is found in a book and on a parent’s lap,” she said.
Among benefits of reading at home prior to starting school, Friedlieb listed creativity skills, social and emotional skills, expanded vocabulary, listening skills, and life lessons.
Hibbing’s ECFE program feels so strongly about early literacy, parents are given a book for their child when they enroll.
“Reading early is good for the child’s early development,” said Executive Director Tayler Finco, “and it’s good for relationship building, too.”
Iron Range schools, libraries, and organizations like UWNEMN have all made efforts to promote early literacy in our communities.
In Hibbing, longtime community volunteer Marcia Grahek has been part of many of these efforts, including stocking Little Free Libraries, reading at schools and libraries, and handing out books to children at community events. UWNEMN has contributed books for many of these efforts.
Still, due to a number of factors, “children fall through the cracks,” Grahek said.
While reading can help children succeed, travel and cost can be barriers to accessing books for some Iron Range children. These were key challenges UWNEMN sought to address by implementing Imagination Library, according to Shay.
“Not every family can easily get to a library or purchase a book,” she said. “Imagination Library brings the books directly to your home at no cost to you.”
UWNEMN leadership also appreciated that the program is open to any child.
“The only thing you have to do to qualify for this program is have a child under the age of 5 and live in our service area,” Shay said.
The program is provided free of charge to all local families thanks to UWNEMN donors. The organization fundraises for Imagination Library through workplace campaign meetings and annual events like the upcoming Power of the Purse January 27 at the Iron Trail Motors Event Center in Virginia.
In addition, UWNEMN will be collecting donations to support Imagination Library on Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving following Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, on November 30. Every $35 raised will sponsor one local child to receive Imagination Library books for a year.
While Imagination Library has serious developmental and educational benefits for children, there are fun benefits, too.
“You get a variety of great books,” Friedlieb said, “and the excitement of getting a book in the mail!”
There is something special Grahek sees every time she hands out a new book to a child to keep as their own.
“You can see their eyes pop,” she said. “Reading expands a child’s whole world right from their small town,” she said.
Donations to support UWNEMN’s Imagination Library program can be made at www.unitedwaynemn.org/give or mailed to 608 East Dr., Chisholm, MN 55719.