When Liz Williams and her husband, Rick, adopted a young blind girl named Rosie, they knew teaching her how to read and write Braille would be one of their first priorities. Little did they know, with the help of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, teaching Rosie to read wouldn’t be half as tough as keeping up with her curiosity.
Because blind readers can’t rely on visual cues, they require more hands-on interaction to connect the ideas they learn about to the world around them. That means if Rosie reads about a snake, Liz finds a snake. If she reads about a lizard, Liz goes lizard hunting.
“She read a story about having lizard earrings, which is a very Florida thing,” Liz says. “So we got some little girls on the block, caught these chameleons, and she had a pair of lizard earrings. It’s her connection to her environment, and it’s provided her a way to have knowledge. She’s curious about the whole world and knows she can find out about the world through these books.”
According to the National Federation of the Blind, less than 10% of legally blind people in the United States are Braille readers. One of the biggest hurdles to literacy is access to Braille books, which can be difficult to find and prohibitively expensive for many families.
But thanks to Imagination Library, Rosie has had access to Braille and print combination books since she was less than a year old. As a result, she was Braille literate before starting kindergarten and is now starting second grade in the gifted program at RideOut Elementary School in Clay County.
“Reading and writing before kindergarten might not mean a lot because so many kids can do that,” Liz says. “Very few blind kids can. It’s like we have to get through this really skinny door. But because of Imagination Library, before we even knew how to look for all the resources for a blind child, these books started appearing.”
Electric Co-ops Support Reading
Rosie is one of more than 2 million children enrolled in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
The programs, which are established and maintained locally, are available in all 50 states, including 15 statewide programs— with more starting up every year. Electric cooperatives have been some of the Imagination Library’s strongest supporters across the country, promoting the program on their websites, in their lobbies and at co-op events.
“Simply getting books into the home changes the trajectory of children, families and communities,” says Nora Briggs, executive director of The Dollywood Foundation, which launched the first program nearly 30 years ago. “Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is an accomplished, simple and effective way to make communities better places to live by supporting and nurturing a love of books, shared family time and early learning.”
While the goal is to inspire a lifetime love of reading and give children opportunities to succeed, research shows an even greater impact. The program has led to significantly stronger reading skills and a better understanding of letter and word concepts when children start school. The establishment of reading routines has been found to bring about increased stability, emotional well-being and an improved family atmosphere, according to summaries of research distributed by The Imagination Library.
The Joy of Reading
As foster parents for several children before adopting Rosie, Liz and Rick have always made reading a priority. But even with their passion for helping kids learn, Liz doubts they would have been able to give Rosie the support she needed without Imagination Library.
“We depend on it,” she says. “We’re probably higher functioning, economically stable parents who have access to things. But when you have a child with a rare condition like blindness and the resources they need aren’t mass-produced, you’re talking about very expensive work.”
It wasn’t just access to books but the selection of the books provided that impressed Liz. As Rosie progressed, Imagination Library began sending her board books, Braille readers that might include an outline of an apple to touch or a patch of fur next to the word for dog, helping her make tactile connections with what she was reading.
By the time Rosie was 18 months old, Liz could already see the passion her daughter was developing for reading.
“We realized she was taking the books to her comfort places: her bean bag or her toy box,” Liz says. “I have a video of her reading for her summer program before kindergarten, and you see the joy she has when she reads.”
If there’s one thing about the program that breaks Liz’s heart, it’s that there are still counties where it isn’t available to children, blind or sighted. Her hope is that local leaders will see the impact Imagination Library has had on a child like Rosie and champion it for the entire state.
“Look at what partnering with Imagination Library has done with a child like Rosie who has all these challenges before her,” said Liz. “They made her a superstar. What could they do with all the other children without those challenges? How far could our county go then?”
On a Mission
Dolly started the book-gifting program in Sevier County, Tennessee, in 1995, as a tribute to her father, Robert Lee Parton Sr., who never attended school but worked as a sharecropper and farmed his own acreage. Despite his lack of education, he had a knack for turning a profit.
“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,” Dolly says.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has gifted more than 200 million books to children in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Republic of Ireland.
How many books Imagination Library has distributed since inception:
United Kingdom: 5,434,925
Republic of Ireland: 283,061
While the program started small, Dolly‘s ambitions for it grew as other organizations and volunteer groups implemented the Imagination Library concept in their own communities.
“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission,” she says.
For more information about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, visit imaginationlibrary.com.