CLARION – “That’s a lot of books.”

That seems to be a common phrase lately as United Way of Clarion County celebrated a major milestone in its three-year partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library — 10,000 books mailed to children living in Clarion County through Clarion County’s Imagination Library.

In early 2017, Ashley Luton approached United Way Executive Director Melissa Fulton, about a program she had heard of in her home town: a book gifting program that delivers high-quality, age-appropriate books to kids each month.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a program that sends free books to children from birth to age five in participating communities within the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. Inspired by her father’s inability to read and write, Dolly started her Imagination Library in 1995 for the children of her home county of Seiver, Tenn. Her vision was to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families by providing them with the gift of a specially selected book each month. Today, her program spans five countries and gifts more than one million free books each month to children around the world.

Little did Ashley know that Melissa had already been researching and was in talks with the Tennessee-based program to replicate it in Clarion County. All she needed was a committee of volunteers to help secure funding and get it off the ground.

Within days, Ashley had convened a group of women — mothers, teachers, former educators — all who understood the benefits of putting books into the hands and homes of children. They reached out to family, friends, local businesses, clubs and organizations. With enough support to cover the approximately $30 per child, per year expense, Ashley then recruited the Clarion MOPS (Moms of Preschoolers) to test the program and help work out the glitches. The first books were mailed to children in Clarion County in June 2017.

More than 440 children, ages birth to 5 years have received books in their mailbox each month. Books are 100 percent free to enrolled children because United Way of Clarion County has secured funds from many donors to cover the cost of the books and the shipping fees. One such contributor, The McElhattan Foundation, cemented its commitment to promote early learning and literacy skills with a $10,000 grant.

Lincoln Irons was the lucky recipient of the 10,000th book through Clarion County’s Imagination Library. Lincoln will turn three in February. He lives in New Bethlehem with his father Tim, mother Ciara, and little sister Evelyn. Ciara learned about Clarion County’s Imagination Library from a friend’s Facebook page. She found the registration forms at Redbank Valley Public Library and signed him up.

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“We read books every night as part of our bedtime routine,” said Ciara. “He and Evelyn will often grab books and ask for them randomly throughout the day, either on the couch, piled in laps on the floor, or cuddled up in a chair together. When we get a new Imagination Library book in the mail, we read them as soon as we can.”

United Way marked the occasion with a basket of books for Lincoln, a donation to his local library, and placed a book at the Redbank Valley Public Library in his honor.

“There is simply no limit on how far we can take this program. I’d love to see all 1,800 eligible kids in our county getting books and being read to everyday,” said Fulton. “But it is an absolute impossibility without the help of our community. The pandemic canceled most of our special events and fundraising activities in 2020. We still aren’t sure what we’ll be able to do in 2021. We can’t deny the benefits of promoting early learning and a love of reading, but at the end of the month, United Way needs to be able to pay the bill. Luckily, we live in a community where learning at every age is valued and people are eager to do what they can to help.”

Research proves that reading with your child is the single most important activity to prepare a child for school. It provides the building blocks for language and it gives them the tools for forming lifelong social and emotional skills. Dolly Parton created her Imagination Library to guarantee access to books and to inspire parents to read to their children as much as possible.

Registration forms can be picked up at any of the local public libraries: Redbank Valley Public Library, Knox Public Library, Foxburg Free Library, Eccles-Lesher Memorial Library, and Clarion Free Library.

Tto get involved with the United Way’s Imagination Library Committee, contact Melissa Fulton at (814) 226-8760 or email info@uwclarionco.org.

Donations can be mailed to United Way of Clarion County, P.O. Box 207, Clarion, PA 16214 or made online at United Way’s website at www.UWClarionCo.org

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