Imagination Library to Bring Free Books to Lewis County Children


To most, Dolly Parton is known as a country music legend known for belting out such hits as “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again” and “I Will Always Love You,” but to children and their families all around the globe, she’s the person responsible for the delivery of 130 million free books through her innovative Imagination Library program.

The program is now signing up participants in Lewis County. 

The area’s three Rotary clubs have linked up with the United Way of Lewis County to launch Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program that delivers a brand new book monthly to participants ages 0 to 5 years old. 

The age appropriate books — which include two bilingual titles a year — arrive in mailboxes free of charge for the children and families who enroll. 

Already, with only minimal effort, more than 250 children have signed up for the Imagination Library in Lewis County. The partners in Rotary and at the United Way hope to see that number rise to about 700 by April. That’s the number the organizers think can be sustained financially in the first year, but it’s far from the overall goal. 

Early funding has come completely through the efforts of the Centralia Rotary Club, the Chehalis Rotary Club and the Twin Cities Rotary Club, which each year join together for a Tri-Club Auction that raises money for a central project in Lewis County. The clubs have dedicated the proceeds of the next three auctions to funding the Imagination Library locally. Beyond that, Rotary members have already went into their own pockets to raise a total of $20,000 to launch the program, with the largest chunk of donations coming from the Centralia Rotary Club. 

The United Way, in addition to handling the operation, will also be chipping in funds from an annual fundraiser during its Chef’s Night Out event along with any donations made directly to United Way and earmarked for the effort. 

The direct cost to Rotary and United Way is $25 per child enrolled in the program annually. It’s estimated that $60,000 to $70,000 a year will sustain the commitment after three years, assuming the program proves as successful as the early enrollments would indicate. 

Partners from the three Rotary clubs and the United Way of Lewis County will be enrolling children in the program from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Timberland library locations in both Centralia and Chehalis. While online enrollment is not currently offered, it will likely be an option down the road, and members of the Rotary clubs and the United Way are planning outreach efforts in places such as East Lewis County in the months ahead. 


Early Development is Key

Those involved with the launch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Lewis County all spoke on one central theme during a recent visit with The Chronicle’s editorial board — early childhood education is key for everything from kindergarten readiness to success in the academic and professional worlds later in life. 

Former Centralia City Councilor John Elmore, president of the Centralia Rotary Club, was an originator for the idea of bringing the Imagination Library to Lewis County. He said he was exposed to a lot of data while serving on the council that led him to believe that interceding and providing a boost for child development locally can have wide-reaching effects, all the way to providing a better workforce as the population is set to explode in nearby Thurston County and other areas. 

“You start to see some of the same repetitious patterns,” he said, noting that homelessness and children paying for the poor decisions of their parents are just two of the themes he’s seen repeat themselves over the years. 

“I saw as a council member what was the challenges before people and not many opportunities,” he said. “We started trying to reverse engineer the process.”

Elmore, Anil Puri, a past president of the Twin Cities Rotary Club and treasurer of the Lewis County Rotary Foundation, and others last year set out to determine what benefits the Imagination Library could have on the youngest generation of Lewis County residents. 

They looked at the results of similar undertakings across the country and even the world. 

“We felt very confident that was the path we should take,” Elmore said. “Then we started looking for a partner.”

That’s where the United Way of Lewis County came in.

The local branch of the United Way was already fully engaged in its “30 by 2030” campaign when it was approached with the idea of providing operational support for the Imagination Library. That effort aims to lift 30 percent of Lewis County families out of poverty by the year 2030, a lofty goal that requires work on many different fronts. 

“This fit really well into what we were doing in lifting kids out of poverty,” said United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Debbie Campbell, who noted that local educators have repeatedly reported that children are increasingly not ready for kindergarten when they arrive. “This gets to the root cause of the early education piece.”

Some data shows that in many impoverished communities, there are as many as 300 children for every one book, Elmore said. Puri said the coalition of partners is especially interested in providing the books for “educationally neglected” children who otherwise don’t have access to many books, though income is not a factor when determining who gets into the program. 

The only real requirements are that the child live in Lewis County and be 5 years old or younger. 

Still, the Imagination Library will eliminate money as a barrier for receiving books that are aimed in both subject matter and timing at making sure children are ready for school when the time comes. A child enrolled from birth will receive 60 books in the five years they participate in the program, and organizers with the Rotary clubs and the United Way are already working with Providence and Valley View to get kids signed up right after birth. 

The interest in the early stages of the program have exceeded all expectations thus far. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this in our lives,” she said. “People are just wanting this so much.” 


Larger Impacts 

Elmore is a firm believer that the benefits of the program will be seen in big ways in the years ahead as the results of the initiative take root in the community. 

Beyond early literacy, he thinks it will provide a better workforce and a stronger economy. 

“It’s a methodological approach,” he said. “Let’s create what we want rather than settle for what we get.”

John Henricksen, representing the Chehalis Rotary Club, echoed that sentiment. 

“Not a lot of projects come along that have that significant potential,” he said. 

The Imagination Library’s own research has proven the long-term positive effects of the program, and that’s a fact that has brought the strong coalition of the three Rotary clubs and the United Way of Lewis County together. 

Though it’s still early in the process, Elmore said he’d like to eventually lobby the county and state to take part in funding the program, perhaps even making it a statewide initiative. 

The local effort is already seeking to build on not only the national and international growth of the Imagination Library, but on successful launches of the program by nearby Rotary clubs in places such as Longview and Woodland, which have provided a framework of sorts for the launch. 

“We’re extremely happy about what the future might hold,” Elmore said.