Valerie Williams knew she wanted in from the moment she heard that the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library/Ohio Governor’s Imagination Library program was coming to Highland County.
As coordinator of the Family and Children First Council and director of Highland County’s Early Head Start program, Williams is keenly aware of the influence of books to power a child’s development — and as a mother of two young children, she wanted every tool at her disposal.
When Ohio first lady Fran DeWine announced the program’s expansion into Highland County last March, Williams was not only one of those instrumental in promoting the program in the county, she was among the first to sign up.
Her sons, 4-year-old Porter and 1-year-old Moxley, now each get an age-appropriate book in the mail every month at no cost to the family.
“Obviously, Moxley doesn’t realize what a big deal this is yet, but Porter loves getting the books in the mail — he’s so excited it has his name on it — and will sit down with it right away and pretend to read. He’s not quite reading yet, but honestly, getting a book every month has him excited about the prospect, and that’s so important.”
Parton and her foundation have gifted more than 150 million books and have 1.7 million participants worldwide. The program is available to every child in Ohio, as partnerships with local funding agencies in all 88 counties match grant money provided by Gov. Mike DeWine and the state legislature to pay the entire cost of sending one book every month to kids from birth through their fifth birthday.
“This effort by so many of us is going to make a huge difference for our kids,” Fran DeWine said at the launch of the Highland County program. “Reading is one of the single greatest things we can do for our kids and with our kids. It’s really an indicator of how they’re going to do later on in life. Brain science shows us that by the time a child turns 3 years old, 80% of their brain is developed. We can’t waste those early years — those are critical to their development. We want to make sure every child enters kindergarten with a good, strong start.”
Ohio electric cooperatives have been instrumental in making sure books are available across the state. The Community Foundation of Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives signed on as the partner in Highland County, while Midwest Electric, Mid-Ohio Energy Cooperative, Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative, and North Central Electric Cooperative joined as partners in Allen, Mercer, Seneca, and Van Wert counties, where the program was having trouble finding partners.
It makes perfect sense for electric cooperatives to have gotten involved, says Patrick O’Loughlin, president and CEO of Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, the co-op statewide service organization.
“You can see how Dolly Parton’s rural roots align with our rural territory,” O’Loughlin says. “With everything that’s happened in the past year with COVID, what could be better than trying to connect young children and their families by trying to provide them resources?”
“Being a community-minded organization, this is one way we thought we could reach out to younger members,” says Matt Berry, general manager at Midwest Electric, which sponsors or co-sponsors programs in three counties. “We understand the core, critical importance of literacy and want to do all we can to help out with that.”
At the same time, there’s certainly room to grow. DeWine’s office estimates there are more than 700,000 children eligible to sign up to receive books, but only about a third of them are currently on the rolls.
“We know the program makes a difference, and we’re doing everything we can to promote it to every child that we know how to reach,” Williams says. “We would love to see every child in the state sign up to start receiving books.”
Ohio co-op sponsors
- Allen County: sponsored by Midwest Electric and Mid-Ohio Energy
- Highland County: sponsored by The Community Foundation of Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives
- Mercer County: sponsored by Midwest Electric
- Seneca County: sponsored by North Central Electric Cooperative
- Van Wert County: sponsored by Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative and Midwest Electric