PORT ELGIN, NB – Giving a child the gift of literacy at an early age greatly increases his or her chances of success throughout their lives.
Since 2009 children from birth to the age of five years living in the area served by Port Elgin Regional School, have had the opportunity to receive a free book each month through The Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program, thanks to the insightfulness of the Rotary Club of Port Elgin.
Founded by the popular country singer in 1996 in her home state of Tennessee, the program provides children from birth to age five years with a new, age-appropriate book every month, free of charge. Parton’s Dollywood Foundation partners with communities willing to provide books for children. Sponsors assist in funding the cost of the books, including the cost of mailing the books to each child. The program was expanded across the US in 2000 and in November, 2006 the Dollywood Foundation partnered with Invest in Kids and launched the Imagination Library in Canada.
Five years ago the Rotary Club of Port Elgin, in partnership with Anglophone East School District (formerly NB School District 2) launched the program in the Port Elgin area. Since that time the program has expanded to include many other schools in Anglophone East, supported financially by many other groups, businesses, individuals and organizations.
Rotary member and Imagination Library coordinator for the Port Elgin area, Genie Coates, who is also a retired methods and resources teacher, said recently that the Rotary Club is launching a new three-year capital campaign with a goal of $15,000, beginning this spring to ensure financial support for the literacy program.
“The budget for the Imagination Library is several thousand dollars each year and so far we’ve had from 50-60 children take part annually which is a 50-60 per cent enrolment rate. We’d like to see that rate increase to include every child from birth to one year, each and every year,” she said.
Coates encourages parents or guardians of young children to sign their children up for this program; at no cost to the family. She explained that early literacy is not the teaching of reading, but in fact is the exposure to lots of books.
“It’s really unfortunate, but some children enter the school system without really knowing what a book is and how it’s used,” she said.
She added that research has shown that children develop the capacity to learn during the first three years of their life and that reading aloud to a child increases their brain capacity for language and literacy skills.
“As educators, many times teachers hear parents ask what they can do to help their child, especially if that child is having some learning difficulties. And what we say most of all is, ‘read to them.’ Brain research has proven that that’s what we need to do most, just read to them,” she said.
She noted that extensive research has shown that before entering the school system, the average child has had 12,000 hours of reading time, while some children may have had only 25 hours spent with someone reading to them.
“We know that children who have more exposure to books at an early age are already ahead of the game before they even start school. The aim of the Imagination Library program is to get more books into homes during those early years and give young children more exposure to literacy,” Coates said.
Although the Imagination Library is sponsored in part by the local Rotary Club, Coates noted that the entire initiative is a successful partnership between a number of other groups.
“Anglophone East administers the program for us, for which we are grateful, and we’re also fortunate to have the support of the Moncton Regional Learning Council, Legs for Literacy, local health care foundations, municipal governments within our region, local and regional businesses as well as a number of private donors. Their support allows the program to continue,” she said.
Coates noted that although a good many children do take part in the program, there are still many who are not enrolled.
“We’re not sure why; perhaps families are not aware of the initiative or perhaps they feel that because they can afford to buy books for their children, that by enrolling their own child they may be taking something away from other children who may need it more. But that’s not the case. The Imagination Library is offered for all children in families of any income bracket. The books provided each month are very good quality and also come with some reading tips for both parents and children, in the back of each book,” she explained.
Natalie Legere, a mother of two young children and grade two teacher at Port Elgin Regional School, echoed that sentiment recently.
“For one thing, the books are such good quality literature…and the kids really enjoy them, and are excited every time one comes in the mail for them. My oldest child, who’s four, always asks me to read the books to him over and over again,” she said.
Legere also said that when she first heard of the program she too hesitated to enrol her children, believing that she may be taking something from other children who, due to financial constraints, may need it more than her own.
“I talked to Genie about my concerns and she told me the program was for everyone, that it was about every child having the books. So I enrolled both of my children and am glad that I did. As a teacher, I think it’s so good that when these children (who have received the books as part of the program) start school they will have all had exposure to these same books and in the classroom they recognize them and are able to talk to each other about them; they already have that common bond. It kind of makes a more level playing field for everyone,” she said.
Legere also encourages parents to enrol their pre-school children in the program.
“Every time a new book comes in the mail my four year-old gets all excited. As a mom it’s so good to see my child get excited about reading and as a teacher it’s so good to see them want to enjoy books, to be excited about learning to read. That’s what you want, for them to be life-long readers, so you have to start young. As teachers we tell parents to read to their kids; you can tell the ones who have been exposed to people reading to them. The Imagination Library is a wonderful program, and it’s for everyone, so why not take advantage of it,” she said.
Coates noted that in the coming months the Rotary Club will be contacting area groups and organizations as part of the capital campaign and also plans to hold an event, which is as yet undecided, to raise funds in support of the program.
“Exposure to early literacy makes a huge difference in the life of any child; we really need to work on that. The Imagination Library is a good way of helping all children in our region get that good start, so we’re hoping the community will continue to assist us in being able to provide this program,” she said.
Children ages birth to five years can be enrolled by submitting an application to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program. Applications and additional information are available at Port Elgin Regional School, the Port Elgin District Voluntary Action Council (PEDVAC), the Anglophone East School District or by contacting any member of the Rotary Club of Port Elgin.