What comes to mind if I ask you to describe Dolly Parton? If the only thing you can think of is big hair, big voice, and that the song Jolene gets stuck in your head whenever you hear it, then you’re missing a lot. And it’s beyond the massive library of songs she’s both written for others and recorded for herself, her multitude of awards, and her acting successes. What hopefully might also occur to you is her humanitarian efforts, including this year’s surprising connection in helping to fund Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.
But even that would not cover the largeness of this (5’0) diminutive woman’s efforts in creating one of the largest non-governmental literacy-focused non-profits in the world, the program known as the Imagination Library. What began as a gift for the children of her hometown of Sevierville in 1995 is now active in all 50 states and five countries and delivers monthly more than 1.5 million free books to children from birth to age five.
The program is simple: Sign up at imaginationlibrary.com. Get free books.
Parton’s Dollywood Foundation provides the relationship with the publisher to make the program affordable and take care of mailing the books to the affiliates in various counties. The affiliates then send them to the registered children. Books are chosen by the Foundation using a prestigious committee of educators, publishers, and authors. They pick about a dozen new books a year so that multiple kids in a family don’t receive the same set of books, except for the first book every child gets, The Little Engine that Could, and the last book in the month of their fifth birthday, Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come!”
Francesca Wiseman, the Executive Director of Imagination Library of Talbot County, explains how this initiative is funded: “As big-hearted and generous as Dolly is, she does not personally pay for the 1.5 million books being sent out around the world each month. We are so grateful for the grants and individual donations we receive that allow us to bring the joy of reading to our children. It costs just $25 to mail 12 beautiful new books to a child over the course of a year!” Currently, the Talbot and Caroline County affiliates provide books for about 2,500 children each month. The Easter and Mid Shore are well represented. Other counties in our area who are involved include: Caroline, Queen Anne, Kent, & Cecil. The United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore is also the affiliate for Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset, and Worcester Counties.
“It’s really run by the community,” says Parton, “that’s why it’s so great. Because this is not just for poor children — this is for all children.” Parton started the program in honor of her father, “My father never learned to read or write, and he felt very handicapped by that,” she said. She hopes that the library gives children from all countries and all walks of life a chance that her father never had.
Dolly Parton, and the people who helped make her dream possible, are now the focus of a feature-length documentary that, like her program, has been years in the making. It was initially scheduled to be shown during a nationwide event this past spring, but now “The Library That Dolly Built” has been reimagined as a one night only free live stream event screening for Facebook on December 9, 7–9 pm.
There will probably be a lot this documentary will uncover about the contributions Dolly Parton has made that go far beyond her musical talent. It will more than likely show that her Imagination Library will be remembered as the most significant contribution of all. As Parton says: “You can never get enough books into the hands of enough children.” Together, as a community, we can try.
Exclusive Facebook Premiere of “The Library That Dolly Built: Celebrating the People Who Made Dolly’s Dream Come True.” A feature-length documentary covering the history, impact, and future of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library on Dec. 9, at 7 pm EST. The film features the music of Dolly Parton and is narrated by actress and author, Danica McKellar. Following the screening, Dolly Parton will be live for fan Q&A and a very special acoustic performance. https://www.facebook.com/events/791609808054853/