Statewide Funding for Dolly Parton Imagination Library Proposed in New House Bill

EARLY LEARNING: Bill Would ‘Sustain’ Program Established Locally by United Way of Lewis County and Lewis County Rotary

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A new state House bill, if passed, would fund the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program statewide, creating and sustaining the program in counties across Washington. 

This would mean, eventually, all children in Washington from birth to age 5 would have access to age appropriate books through the mail every month, at no cost to their families. 

The program is a nationwide initiative run by the Dollywood Foundation to support early childhood education by connecting with local nonprofit affiliates. It was founded by Parton in 1995. 

In Lewis County, the Imagination Library was kickstarted by a partnership between United Way of Lewis County and the Lewis County Rotary Foundation in November of 2019. 

As of now, there are 2,599 children in the county signed up, and that number includes kids in every county ZIP code, according to Angela French, resource development director at United Way of Lewis County. That’s about 54% of all the eligible county kids, and more are signed up every week as soon as they are born. Since the program arrived locally, there have also been 844 “graduates,” or children who aged out of the monthly mailed book program.

“We actually have a really strong population signed up in East Lewis County, which is wonderful and gives kids that maybe don't have quite as easy of an access to a library to get these books mailed to home,” French said, noting United Way of Lewis County was “thrilled” about the possibility of that access increasing through the proposed legislation. 

“Having this House bill go through, it will give access to this program to every child that is of the ages birth to 5 in Washington,” she said.

House Bill 2068 was introduced on Wednesday, Dolly Parton’s 76th birthday, and is co-sponsored by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia. The bill would allow the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to coordinate with a nonprofit in Washington state to develop, promote and sustain local Imagination Library programs, with OSPI funding 50% of the costs through donations, grants, public or private sources.

In a news release from United Way of the Pacific Northwest, Abbarno stated his family participated in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program and said “programs like this encourage families to read and spend time together.”

French called Abbarno “a champion of this program since day one.”

For United Way of Lewis County, the support it offers to early childhood learning was motivation to get behind the project in 2019, as childhood education is a focus in its goal of lifting 30% of families out of poverty by 2030.

Though language in the bill does not specifically outline the nonprofit, the bill is supported by United Way of the Pacific Northwest and OSPI. As a county-by-county nonprofit, United Ways across the state would be able to fulfill the Imagination Library’s local affiliate requirements by signing children up and tracking the number of kids enrolled. 

“Our cost as an affiliate is about $25 a year per child. And by having this kind of legislation passed, in a 50% match, that would take our monthly book bill that we pay to the Dollywood Foundation to get those books out, it would cut it in half,” French said of how the bill would help locally. “So, in the long run, we're going to be able to sustain this program.”