The littlest residents of Culpeper and Madison counties just got a boost to their education through access to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
The country-music legend launched the reading initiative in 1995 in her hometown of Sevier County, Tenn., providing free books by mail to children from birth to age 5.
As of April, Parton has given 157 million books to babies, toddlers and preschoolers across America as well in Canada, England, Australia and Ireland.
Locally, the Imagination Library is being made available with support from The Heights Family Foundation, an Ohio-based literacy nonprofit connected to this area, and Charlottesville-based Quickstart Tennis of Central Virginia, which runs Racquets for Reading.
A high school teacher in Ohio, Jed Davies is president of The Heights Family Foundation. He spent his formative years in Culpeper.
Davies is the son of Dr. Linda Daniel of Culpeper, and the stepson of local businessman Joe Daniel. He said his family was able to start the Ohio foundation due to the success of Culpeper Wood Preservers, and they wanted to share some of that good fortune with local children.
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“We discovered Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is an easy way to combine our interests in early childhood literacy and community outreach,” Davies told the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
Davies launched the program in Ohio, reaching 7,000 children. The state since has expanded the initiative and is now funding it through the newly-formed Ohio Imagination Library.
“After we gained experience locally by operating the program in the Cleveland area, we wanted to expand our outreach to our hometown,” Davies said via email.
Books in the home are advantageous for every child, he said, noting that reading to children forges strong emotional bonds and creates social and emotional health.
And when children who have access to books at home start kindergarten, they will have shared cultural capital that enriches their education, Davies said.
Growing up in Culpeper until age 10 and moving back at age 20, the Ohio schoolteacher said his family put an emphasis on reading.
“And had the good fortune to stock many books at home from The Corner Shelf,” Davies said of the Culpeper bookstore, which has long since closed. “I also have fond memories of searching the card catalogue at the Culpeper Public Library!”
The Heights Family Foundation will fund this program in perpetuity in Culpeper and Madison, he said.
“People can best support the program by spreading the word to boost enrollment and by reading with their children,” Davies said.
When Lynda Harrill, with QuickStart Tennis, saw an ad on social media that Imagination Library was getting off the ground here, she got in touch with Davies to see how she could help make it happen. When COVID hit, she said, her nonprofit started a pre-k childhood literacy program, providing free books and learning materials to local kids. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was a perfect complement, Harrill said.
A retired accountant and auditor, she is passionate about childhood literacy and dedicated to improving reading test scores across Virginia.
“Only one county in the state—Highland—has reading scores above 90 percent, out of 132 school systems,” Harrill said in a phone conversation. “I called them up to see if I could pick any pearls of wisdom.”
She said Highland schools take “a customized approach” to reading.
The other secret, she added, is that Highland has the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
When Harrill heard that Davies wanted to start such a program in Culpeper and Madison—ranked in the 60-70 percent pass rate for third grade reading—she volunteered to help promote it.
“It creates this reading pathway. Imagination Library is the secret sauce,” she said, noting that counties with the program have higher reading scores. “Having age-appropriate books in the home is so important for the acquisition of vocabulary and to get books in kid’s hands as young as you can. You can tell people to read to their kids, but if they don’t have money to go buy the books, what is the point?”
Since starting in April in Madison, 370 children have signed up for the program. It launched last week in Culpeper.
“This is one of the most wonderful gifts anybody can give to a child,” Harrill said. “So they will be ready when they hit the schoolroom door.”
Dolly Parton, in a letter at imaginationlibrary.com, said that before her father passed, he told her the childhood literacy program was probably the most important thing she had ever done.
“I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, because I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my daddy,” Parton wrote. “He was the smartest man I have ever known, but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams. Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.”
Signing up is easy. There are no income requirements. Go to imaginationlibrary.com, click on CHECK AVAILABILITY, enter your Zip code, your country, your city, your county, click on CHECK and then CONTINUE to complete online registration or to print a form to register by mail. Once registered, children ages 0 to their 5th birthday are eligible to receive a free book mailed each month to their home.
The first book that all children will receive is “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper.