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Imagination Library aims to spark a love of reading in KC area children

Updated: 2013-09-03T15:52:35Z

By MARÁ ROSE WILLIAMS

The Kansas City Star

The choo-choo train story made 3-year-old Katelyn Sims giggle and wiggle and squeal.

She was having a great time in her mother Elisha Sims’ lap as Mom read Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could” to the toddler.

“I think I can. I think I can,” Sims read.

Two weeks ago, the book had arrived by mail, wrapped in plastic, at the Simses’ home in Kansas City’s Marlborough neighborhood. Katelyn’s mom tore into it right away and began reading it to her daughter.

“I was very excited to get it,” Sims said. “We had been waiting for it to come. Katelyn loves books.”

The book was sent by the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, an early childhood literacy program being funded in the Kansas City area this year through private donations to the United Way of Greater Kansas City but separate from the umbrella charity’s annual campaign dollars.

Funding from BMO Harris Bank and the Government Employee Health Association, along with individual donations, covers the $25-a-year per-child cost of having a new age-appropriate book selected by Imagination Library and sent each month to enrolled children, ages birth to 5. The United Way’s Woman’s Leadership Council announced in March they were bringing the program to Kansas City.

“The Little Engine That Could” is always the first book children in the program receive.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, founded in 1996 by the country music superstar, sends books to more than 700,000 children each month in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. It is the United Way of Greater Kansas City’s newest education initiative and part of its efforts to bolster academic achievement in this area.

Support of education opportunities is one of the organization’s three main “building blocks toward a good life,” said Brent Stewart, the CEO and president of the local United Way. The other building blocks are helping families attain financial independence and access good health services.

So far, 100 area children are enrolled in Imagination Library. The United Way hopes to have 1,000 children getting a book a month by the end of the program’s first year and expand to 5,000 children in five years.

The program is not limited to children in low-income homes. Kansas City Public Schools and the North Kansas City, Independence, Shawnee Mission and Center school districts are working with the program to select low-income neighborhoods where many children don’t have books in their homes.

“We decided to start the program in the urban core,” said Dana Abraham, the chairwoman of the Woman’s Leadership Council and the president of private wealth management at UMB Bank.

Abraham called it “divine order” that the Imagination Library’s goals align with both Mayor Sly James’ Turn the Page effort and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative. The goal of the mayor’s program is to have all Kansas City children reading at grade level by third grade. The chamber initiative focuses on prosperity, health and safety and education.

“We believe that when we fix the education problem everything else leading to an independent and healthy, quality life will fall into place,” Abraham said.

The National Center for Education Statistics has reported that children who are read to frequently start school at an academic advantage over children who were not. According to the center, children who are read to are more likely to start school counting to 20 or higher than those who were not, write their names and read or pretend to read. But children in families with incomes below the poverty line are less likely to be read to daily.

Armed with that information, Aimee Alderman, the director of the Parents as Teachers program in the Center school district, a team of other educators and a helper from the Woman’s Leadership Council walked Kansas City’s neighborhoods in June, knocking on doors and telling parents about the Imagination Library. Alderman visited Elisha and Katelyn Sims and signed them up.

Alderman said the school districts will track through high school each child who signed up for the Imagination Library and compare that child’s progress with those of other children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds who were not enrolled in the program.

Elisha Sims, who is studying computer science at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, said she reads to Katelyn several times a day. “At bedtime she wants at least two stories,” Sims said.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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