Picture this: Every child in McAlester and throughout Pittsburg County, ages birth to 5, can get their own free new book.
Not only that, once they’ve signed up for the program, they can qualify to get a new book each month until they leave the program after their fifth year.
It is not an impossible dream. It’s on its way to becoming a reality thanks to a couple of locals, the Friends of the McAlester Public Library, MPL, and Dolly Parton.
Called the Pittsburg County Imagination Library, it is taking flight as part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and the renowned singer-songwriter’s goal to inspire a love of books and reading in all children from a very young age. It is designed to put “books into the hands and hearts of children around the world.”
The Parton Imagination Library partners with local groups or organizations to collaborate with the program.
The concept caught the imagination of local resident Caroline Russell, who soon contacted her friend Robin Woodley in hopes that they could bring such a program to McAlester. They soon expanded their goal to include the entirety of Pittsburg County.
Through the program, children can receive a book personalized with their name that will be mailed directly to their home, in hopes of encouraging families to enjoy their books together.
While Russell and Woodley were excited about the possibilities, they needed to partner with a nonprofit group.
Russell, who said he has three children under the age of 3, said ever since he heard about the show, he wanted to be on it.
“I kept checking availability,” he said. Then, “I had a lightbulb moment.”
Russell contacted a regional director of the Imagination Library. “He told me we had to be under 501(c)(3),” Russell said.
She already had an idea who she wanted to ask for help with the program: Friends of the Library treasurer David Beall.
“I had heard great things about David,” Russell said.
Woodley said that she and Russell worked together on another project several years ago. Woodley was already familiar with the Imagination Library. Her son, Chase Woodley, lives in Washington DC, and her 2-year-old son had already received some books through her. Woodley also knew Beall and they arranged a meeting.
“We arranged a meeting with the Friends of the Library and got to work on it,” Woodley said.
Beall and members of the Friends of the Library Board were impressed with Russell and Woodley’s presentation.
“We approved it on the spot,” Beall said.
Children enroll in the program through their parents or caregivers.
“We had 410 children registered and as of this morning we’ve added another hundred,” Woodley said earlier this week.
The latest federal census shows 2,616 children in that age group in Pittsburg County, he said, so the group is already on track to enroll a significant portion of that population.
“We think the first round of books will come in June,” Woodley said. If there are several children in a household, each one will receive a book adapted to her age. Also, the books will arrive on a different date, so there should definitely be a sense of anticipation, she said.
The first book a child entering the program receives is “The Little Engine That Could,” Woodley said. The last one out of the show is “Watch out for kindergarten, here I come!”
“This is a way to make a significant impact,” Russell said. “It’s not based on income. Every child has the same opportunity.”
Signing up is a simple process and can be done online or by mail.
To register online, go to imaginelibrary.com. It will ask for your ZIP code, she said, to determine eligibility. Russell and Woodley said all zip codes in Pittsburg County would need to be approved to register to participate.
Registration forms can also be picked up and returned at the McAlester Public Library. For those who prefer to register online but do not have internet access, the library has offered to make it available.
MPL manager Heath Stanfield said the library is happy to participate.
“One cannot overestimate early literacy, it is a game changer,” he said.
Although it is not a program of the Southern Oklahoma Library System, it aligns with the library’s values of providing access to information and understanding the importance of early childhood literacy, Stanfield said.
“Our librarians are trained on how to sign people up on the website or give them a physical form,” he said. A special box has been set up in the library for the forms, and Friends of the Library will collect those forms a couple of times a week, she said.
“We’re excited about it,” Stanfield said. “The library gets nothing out of it. We want books in the hands of children, and that can change a community.”
While the Dolly Parton Imagination Foundation bears much of the cost, it is not designed to absorb it all without some help.
“We depend on donations from the community,” Woodley said. “It will take a town with so many books.” Some generous donations have already been made and plans are underway to expand how donations can be made.
“We expect to have a lot of entry points,” Woodley said. However, they do not want parents or other caregivers to feel that they must make a donation in order for their child to participate in the program. “We will never ask a parent for a donation,” she said.
The cost of participation is an average of $25 per child. The Oklahoma State Department of Education recently announced that it will participate in the statewide program for half that cost, at $12.50. That will help by reducing the amount that needs to be raised locally, also $12.50, to get to the total of $25.
Beall said anyone who wants to help can send a check payable to: Friends of the Library; Attn: Dolly Parton Imagination Library; 401 N. Second Street; McAlester, OK; 74501. She said that 100% of the donation will go to the project.
“It’s a fantastic program,” Beall said. “Friends of the Library are happy to participate.”
Contact James Beaty at [email protected]