By Brandon Martin
With the season of giving in full swing, the United Way of Henry County and Martinsville (HCM) and Smart Beginnings Martinsville Henry (SBMH) is gearing up for their campaign to support local childhood literacy through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995 to inspire a love for books and reading amongst the nation’s preschool children. Twenty-five years after its inception, the library recently hit a new milestone by giving its 150 millionth book. The library currently donates to approximately 1.7 million children around the world each month.
Philip Wenkstern, director of the United Way of HCM, said that the program provides a book a month for about 1,700 children locally, each year.
“It’s a fantastic program that promotes a strong, loving relationship between parents and their children while also promoting literacy,” Wenkstern said. “We are so happy to be able to give the gift of reading to so many children in our local community each month.”
The books are chosen from a list developed by reading specialists with The Dollywood Foundation. While each child will receive different books based on individual needs, the first book mailed to each is “The Little Engine That Could,” according to SBMH Director Melanie McLarty. This also is the first book that Parton learned to read.
On average, Wenkstern said it costs about $27 to provide an age-appropriate book to a child once a month. He said the United Way needs approximately $49,000 total to cover the local contribution for their participation in the program.
Wenkstern said the United Way has an annual fundraising effort from September until December that helps fund all their yearly activities. Of the drive, he said about $15,000 will be designated for the Imagination Library. The remaining $34,000 is covered through a variety of grants and philanthropic contributions.
The local fundraising effort will have a boost from Parton herself this year, with the drive coinciding with the free one-night-only live streaming world premiere event for “The Library That Dolly Built,” a behind-the-scenes look at the Imagination Library.
McLarty said that Martinsville-Henry County was originally selected as a host community for the screening of the film, but the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The event has since been reimagined as a live stream screening of the film, exclusively on Facebook, available nationally on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a conversation with, and live acoustic performance, by Parton. Viewers can tune into the live screening and conversation on FB.ME/dollysimaginationlibrary and ImaginationLibrary.com.
“The Library that Dolly Built” is directed and produced by journalism professor and director Nick Geidner, with narration by Danica McKellar. The film also provides a glimpse of the impact the Imagination Library has on people through original interviews with authors, policymakers, Imagination Library staff, recipients, and Parton.
Facebook is waiving all associated fees and 100 percent of the proceeds will be delivered to SBMH to support the library locally.
“We are thrilled to partner with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to share this story and many more here in MHC,” McLarty said. “Reading is more than words on a page. Reading is the key that unlocks a lifetime of adventure and opportunity. We are thankful for Dolly’s Library and to each donor who makes it possible for us to provide books to more than 1,600 children in MHC each year. Together, we are changing lives one book at a time.”
McLarty said the community initially began participating in the program in 2014 with less than 500 participants. That number has more than tripled in only six years.
“We’ve been very blessed,” McLarty said. “We’ve received so many calls from parents and grandparents who just love reading with their children.”
Based on past success, McLarty said she is hopeful that another 186 children will be enrolled this year.
To sponsor a child, visit https://www.facebook.com/donate/168933321563068/. Donations also may be made by visiting unitedwayofhcm.org/donate.