TRAVERSE CITY — About 56 percent of third-graders test below proficiency in reading, according to the 2019 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book.
The international nonprofit Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library aims to change that. Parton, who grew up with many siblings and an illiterate father, started the program in 1995 in her home state of Tennessee.
Nancy Grote, who holds a doctorate in early childhood education, said she first learned about the program at a reading conference in Georgia. She and her husband saw its positive impacts during the decade they lived in Tennessee.
Now living in Traverse City, Grote agreed to take on the role of main coordinator for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Grand Traverse Region in January 2016.
“I thought I was retired,” she said. “But I said yes because it’s so important. I love doing this program. It’s a gift to families, to the children.”
Parents can sign their kids up for free, no matter their income level. Children get one book in the mail each month until they turn 5. Grote said recipients are excited to receive mail in their name, and parents enjoy reading to their children.
The international organization created a book list and mails about one million texts every month from it. Grote said they mail from a “developmentally appropriate” selection and many are available in Spanish. All children receive “The Little Engine That Could” first and “Look Out Kindergarten. Here I Come!” last.
“They’ll have favorite books,” she said. “That’s the beauty of Dolly Parton — they create a library. They will become passionate about books and passionate about reading.”
The ultimate goal is to reach as many young children as possible. Grote said the program can change the state’s dismal literacy standings.
“Three books a day is all it takes to keep them at reading level,” she said. “We could turn Michigan around. I feel it could make a huge, huge difference.”
Grote said the Grand Traverse affiliate serves nearly 500 children in the Grawn, Interlochen, Lake Ann and Long Lake areas.
Though coverage area is based on ZIP codes, Grote said they also focus on school enrollment areas. The program started at Interlochen Elementary before it closed and now includes Traverse Heights and Blair Elementary schools.
Tracy Truschke said she learned about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Grand Traverse Region through the Traverse City Area Public Schools School Readiness Program. Truschke coordinates the program and conducts home visits to encourage reading among families with kids ages 3 and younger.
“I have heard only good things about the ‘free books’ program,” she said. “I love it when the children come up to me when I get to their home and show me the new books they received in the mail.”
One of the books is called “I am a Rainbow.” Truschke said it teaches color names and patterns and kids can match them with their feelings.
She said the library program is necessary in northern Michigan because it can positively impact literacy, as a solution to the low proficiency in reading.
“All children deserve the best possible start in life, and all parents deserve to be supported in their role as their child’s first teacher,” she said. “The more children who are exposed to reading, the more successful they’ll be and ready for kindergarten.”
Grote said the local nonprofit is working to expand to Benzie County and Leelanau County, including the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
“Other communities can do it, too,” she said. “More funding will help open it to more ZIP codes.”
Parents can register their children for the program by mailing the local office at Central United Methodist Church, 222 Cass St., Traverse City, MI 49684. Forms are available online. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.
If you go
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Grand Traverse Region hosts its second fundraiser from 5:30-8:30 p.m. May 16 at Boone’s Long Lake Inn. The evening features a silent auction and dinner. The guest speaker is Jenifer Strauss, a narrative consultant from Story Be Told, which uses story to help educators, organizations and individuals connect, communicate and achieve their goals.
Tickets are $50 per person at MyNorth Tickets. Email email@example.com for more information.