Tennessee may rank low among states on academic achievement, but that should change in the near future as it leads the pack in introducing young children to the joys of reading.
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which strives to deliver one book a month to all children from birth to age 5, has fired the imagination of Tennessee's government leaders as well as its business people, who are making the program a reality for financially distressed counties.
And since Gov. Phil Bredesen started the Governor's Books From Birth Foundation in May 2004 with $2 million in seed money from the general fund, 55 of the state's 95 counties have signed up for the program.
"No one thought this would grow so fast. This has surprised everyone," said Margie Maddux, communications officer for the governor's foundation.
Among the 40 states participating in Parton's Imagination Library, Tennessee is the first to initiate a statewide program. The state is offering to split the costs with counties of purchasing and mailing the books to children each month until they reach age 5, which will create a 60-book library for children before they enter school.
In each county, nonprofit groups have been designated to administer the program locally. They are raising funds, getting the word out, and registering parents to have their children receive the books.
When Davidson County launched its program in March, Vanderbilt Children's Hospital stepped in to administer it, having run a similar program, Jo's Reach Out and Read. That program had received $250,000 from Nashville's NewsChannel 5, which will be used to help fund the Imagination Library program, said hospital spokeswoman Carole Bartoo.
The Dollywood Foundation in Sevier County runs the Imagination Library nationwide, selecting and purchasing the books at a discount from the publisher and shipping them out from a warehouse in Knoxville. The foundation recoups the book price and shipping charges, which amount to $27 per year per child, from the community organizations that administer the program.
The Imagination Library expects to mail 2.2 million books this year to 500 communities in 40 states, said David Dotson, executive director of The Dollywood Foundation.
However, not every Tennessee community can afford the annual $27 cost per child. So thanks to a handful of businesses that have committed a total of more than half a million dollars to the effort over the next few years, financially challenged counties can have their tab covered under a yearly grant program.
So far, the governor's statewide plan has received pledges of $225,000 from Delta Dental of Tennessee, $180,000 from Dollar General Corp., $150,000 from Comcast, and $50,000 from Bridgestone Americas Holdings.
Rural Clay County, with only 8,000 residents, will be the first county to take advantage of the corporate grant program, allowing it to have books mailed to the approximately 450 children who are eligible for the program.
"For a small county, it's vital. We couldn't do things like this without help from businesses and the grants that we get," said Randall Killman, executive director of the Clay County Partnership Chamber of Commerce in Celina, which helped set up the program.
Country singer Dolly Parton created the Imagination Library in 1996 as a way of showing her love for children, having never had any herself, Dotson said.
"Everything is based on her own experience and remembering that some of the most memorable moments in her childhood that fired her imagination were sitting in that cabin and listening to her mother read stories from the Bible to her," Dotson said.
According to Dotson, many states are looking to the model that Tennessee has set up that brings state and counties together in a funding partnership. The addition of corporate sponsors to help strapped counties is also an innovative way to distribute financial responsibility, he said.