Women United adopts Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program to boost early literacy in Routt County | SteamboatToday.com

Women United adopts Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program to boost early literacy in Routt County

The 2015 Children’s Book Feast attracted kids of all ages to Bud Werner Memorial Library Saturday, and Florian Speier, Jessica Pfohl, Masumi, 1 1/2, and Kaiya, 6, were just one of the many families that attended the day-long event, which centered on books, reading and art. Photo by Lisa Schlichtman

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County United Way Executive Director Kate Nowak has fond memories of her mother stressing the importance of books while she was reading to her.

"I can still remember my mother telling me, 'Kate you can go anywhere in the world and do anything with a book,’ and you can. I think that's pretty cool," Nowak said.

It's one of the main reasons that Nowak and Women United are bringing Imagination Library, a book-gifting program started by country-western star Dolly Parton, to Routt County. Through the program, children receive a free, age-appropriate book every month until the age of 5.

The program began here in January and there are already more than 300 families signed up.

But Women United isn't stopping there.

"We want this to be an everlasting program," said Diane Muntean, Women United chairperson. "My mantra has been, with our group, that we have another 1,000 kids to sign up in Routt County. We are not stopping with our initial wave of signups, which took place in January and February of this year. If we have to knock on doors (to sign children up), we are going to knock on doors."

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Nowak said the initial wave of signups is a very positive sign for a program she hopes will eventually reach every one of the more than 1,300 children in Routt County and in the process address an underlying problem.

"In 2016, the aggregate score of all the schools in Routt County was that 39 percent (of the children going into kindergarten) were below proficiency in literacy," Nowak said of the results of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) test, which is used to assess students on the acquisition of early literacy skills.

"It was really very surprising to me, but I don't know all the factors that play into that,” Nowak said. “Some would say it’s because of technology, screen time or lack of books in the home. I remember a teacher approaching me down in South Routt who was from Michigan. She was familiar with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and said, 'We really need it here.’"

When Nowak saw the results of the scores last year, she remembered what the teacher had said and brought the idea to Women United, an affinity group of Routt County United Way that raises money and takes on projects to make the community better. It was started 18 months ago with 12 members and has grown to 58 today.

Woman United's first program was Backpacks & Bubbles, where members provided backpacks filled with school supplies to 22 children who were part of a three-week program run by Integrated Community to introduce non-English learners, who had not attended preschool, to kindergarten. Muntean said the backbacks where given to the students when they completed the program.

The project marked a starting point for Women United, which has continued to grow.

The group has set a fundraising goal of $100,000 for the Imagination Library program, and about $55,000 has been raised to date. The program began in January when the group held 11 sign-up sessions at local libraries, Off the Beaten Path bookstore, United Way and Integrated Community. 

Muntean said every family in Routt County is eligible and can enroll in the program through Routt County United Way or by signing up at any of the area's libraries. Women United is also working with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center to sign up newborns and send them home from the hospital with a book. 

A donation of $25 will provide books to a child for a year, and a donation of $125 will support a child from birth to age 5. Donations can be made at http://www.routtcountyunitedway.org, and donors should place Imagination Library in the memo line to ensure the money is used for that program.

Research shows a link between early literacy and a child’s future success in school. 

"The biggest indicator for children’s literacy, birth to 5, is having a parent read to them," Nowak said. "In a town like we have, where people are working two jobs, sometimes three, it’s tough to get to the library. But if you have books in the home, the child is more apt to bring the book and put it on mommy’s lap, or daddy's, and say ‘please read to me.’"

A similar program was started in Moffat County four years ago, and that program now has more than 500 children registered. The county has also seen improved DIBELS scores.

"What I love about it is that it is so measurable," Nowak said. "In five years, we will look at the DIBELS scores and hopefully be lower than that 39 percent. I think the school district's goal is 20 percent, and we want to beat that." 

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966