Washington’s Imagination Library Expands Early Literacy Across the State

Dolly Parton poses with two children, holding a book open.
Courtesy of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

Many services for children came to a halt in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but not Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

“That engine kept moving,” said Brooke Fisher-Clark, Executive Director of the Imagination Library of Washington. “No matter what, through this whole process, children that have been enrolled have received their book like clockwork every single month, in their mailbox, whether there was a pandemic or not. They could count on their book coming when maybe there were other things in their world that they couldn’t count on.”

United Ways of the Pacific Northwest has been leading the effort to expand the Imagination Library across Washington state. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is supporting this project through an investment of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

Founded by Dolly Parton in 1995, the Imagination Library sends an age-appropriate book to children ages 0–5 once a month, every month, for free. Affiliate programs partner with the Dollywood Foundation to enroll children living in specific coverage areas.

Last month, Governor Jay Inslee signed a law creating a 501(c)(3) organization, the Imagination Library of Washington, to help develop and sustain affiliate programs in each county in the state. So far, there are 29 affiliate programs serving approximately 26,000 children across Washington’s 39 counties.

The Okanogan County Child Development Association (OCCDA) has operated its affiliate program since 2019, shortly after Shelly Turner learned of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

“I grew up in Okanogan County and just know that there’s a great need here to support our youth and increase literacy and graduation outcomes for all our kiddos,” said Turner, Volunteer Coordinator for OCCDA’s Imagination Library program and a volunteer herself.

Turner’s sister connected her with Jodi DeCesari, Executive Director of OCCDA, who agreed that the organization was a good fit for operating an Imagination Library affiliate. The program now serves approximately 935 children across Okanogan County, and has mailed more than 32,000 books to those children since beginning operations.

With a focus on expanding access to the Imagination Library, Turner and DeCesari are hoping to enroll children who have the highest need.

“We have a high rate of children in our county who are considered to be in extreme poverty,” DeCesari said. “We’re watching our homeless rate increase.”

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, DeCesari added, meaning that more children lacked access to important learning tools like books. But like other Imagination Library affiliates across the state, OCCDA continued to operate throughout the pandemic, delivering books to children every month.

“We knew that this was incredibly valuable because those children who were school age, but not able to go to school, had the books of their younger siblings at home,” Turner said. “Children who were not in school yet, but public libraries were closed, were still getting books in their home.”

Engaging children with literacy early on in life has been connected to outcomes including kindergarten readiness, reduced rates of disciplinary action, and higher graduation rates. Turner and DeCesari said they’re already seeing these benefits in their community, thanks to the Imagination Library.

“We are seeing the increase in literacy skills,” DeCesari said. “We continue to see, even through COVID, increase in literacy outcomes and language outcomes.”

When it costs just $2.10 per book to sustain an affiliate program, Fisher-Clark sees how the investment could pay off.

Early literacy is “helping to transform our communities as a whole,” Fisher-Clark said. “I call it the most powerful seed you could plant.”

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