Building a love for books at an early age

Singer and Actress Dolly Parton began the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program in 1995 to encourage children to value the importance of reading. The program started in East Tennessee where Parton grew up, but soon expanded to serve communities all over the country through partnerships with local organizations, including United Way of Greater St. Louis.


The program provides children with age-appropriate, high-quality books that are mailed to their home each month from birth through age five.


St. Louis Public Schools implemented this program for children in their school district in 2016. Latasha Anderson, Parents as Teachers coordinator for St. Louis Public Schools, said parents and children are thrilled to be a part of this program.


“Parents tell me all the time that their children are always so excited to get the books so they can have them read to them and see the cool pictures in the book,” said Anderson. “It’s great that children are learning to engage with reading or even just looking at the book with their parent and pointing out interesting things that they see and having a conversation about it.”


Anderson said building a foundation for reading at an early age is crucial because it introduces children to language, literacy, and broadens their knowledge about various topics.


“Reading is the first way that we learn to speak and develop language skills, and it helps children understand what’s going on in the world around them,” said Anderson. “There’s so many different topics that can be addressed just through reading or looking at books.”


Miiko Smith’s daughter, Brendii, receives books from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, and Smith said the program has made Brendii more enthusiastic about reading.


“She gets really excited and animated when she gets a new book; she’s interested in what’s going on in the book. She’ll try to memorize what I read to her and then try to say it back to me,” said Smith. “This program has also helped with her social development with other kids. When it’s storytelling time in school, she wants to be the one that reads to her classmates.”


As a parent, Smith prioritizes reading over electronic devices as she believes reading has a greater impact in helping her kids learn and develop their social skills.


“I know that because of the culture, a lot of kids are accustomed to cell phones and electronic devices, but reading a book has so many more benefits than allowing a kid to watch TV or look at a screen,” said Smith. “Giving children books to read stimulates their imagination and expands their understanding of their environment and the world.”



United Way’s impact

Since 2009, United Way and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library have partnered to provide over 90,000 free books to children throughout the St. Louis region.


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and children and families having to stay and learn at home, the number of books distributed through this program has increased. In 2021, 15,774 books were distributed to local children to sharpen their literacy skills at an early age despite difficult circumstances.


Dawna Gilbreath, portfolio manager at United Way of Greater St. Louis, helps implement the program through local school and libraries and is grateful for the partnership that United Way has forged with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.


“Getting children introduced to books early and having them embrace reading can have a significant impact on their future, including increased academic performance, likelihood to graduate high school, and have higher levels of education,” said Gilbreath. “Through this program, we’re helping even more kids and families find enjoyment and build a love of books.”



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Rodney Humphries
Rodney Humphries

Rodney Humphries is the Communications Specialist for United Way of Greater St. Louis and a proud graduate of Webster University where he developed his passion for writing. In college, he combined his love for writing and sports, serving as the primary sports writer for his school newspaper while also developing his own sports blog. After graduating, he continued his love for writing as he served as a freelance writer for various publications. Rodney continues to be a fan of Webster athletics, you will often see him sitting courtside at a lot of their basketball games.