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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library: Tackling Global Learning Crisis

We're made of cells … and stories. From the time we're born, stories – spoken, read and sung – help us create not only language, but also our own sense of self. Stories feed our culture, and strengthen knowledge, families and community. 

Parents, caregivers and other experts know that building language is fundamental to a child's development. The more we read with our children (especially in the early years), the stronger their pre-literacy skills become. And the stronger those skills become, the better their reading comprehension will be. Children who can read well by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school or secondary school, studies show. And we all know that graduation is key to professional development and economic stability.

The United Nations marks Sept. 8 as International Literacy Dayto remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights” and to build a more literate, sustainable world. 

It's more important than ever to focus on building literacy skills in children and youth. The pandemic has worsened the global literacy crisis, experts agree – disproportionately impacting children from lower- and medium-income countries, under resourced neighborhoods and communities of racial and ethnic minorities.

As the World Bank found in its 2022 research, the impact of COVID on basic education cannot be overstated:  

  • Schoolchildren around the world missed an estimated 2 trillion hours, losing 1.5 year of learning.
  • One in 10 countries closed their schools for over 40 weeks – a month longer than a full school year. 
  • The most affected region was Latin America, where its Learning Poverty Index increased from 57% in 2019 to 70% by 2022.  
  • In high-income countries (like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Germany), students who'd already been struggling were left behind, impacting their mental health as well as learning. 
  • The UN Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring that all children can read by 2030 is far out of reach. 

One strategy that United Ways around the world are using to boost childhood literacy is Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. Started by the country superstar in 1995 in response to childhood illiteracy rates in her home state of Tennessee, the program provides children a new, age-appropriate book every month for the first five years of life – for free (regardless of income). Today, this inspirational program spans five countries, and has provided 213 million books to 2.5 million children around the world, along with parent resources.

United Way has helped make that happen. Across our global  Network, some 81% of local United Ways seek to boost childhood literacy in their communities. Right now, more than 164 local United Ways are fueling Imagination Library programs. United Ways are raising funds to support the program, encouraging other partners to contribute to cover the cost of books and mailing, promoting the program and registering local children. 

In Australia, United Way Australia was the driving force in bringing Imagination Library to that country in 2013. Around 22% of Australian children start school developmentally vulnerable. Imagination Library is part of United Way Australia's strategy to help 40,000 Australian children read, learn and succeed. Learn more here.  

Dolly Parton and United Way leaders celebrate expansion of Imagination Library across Washington state.

A few weeks ago, Dolly Parton visited Washington to celebrate its statewide expansion of Imagination Library. The program was started in June 2022, administered by United Ways of the Pacific Northwest. Currently, more than 65,000 children in Washington are enrolled, and have gotten more than 1.6 million books. 

And research shows having books in the home  is making a real difference. Some 41 independent studies have shown that the program has a positive and significant impact on family literacy habits, kindergarten readiness and supporting stronger readers in elementary/primary school, according to a 2021 report.

Communities of all sizes are supporting Imagination Library. A recent blog on the web site of the United Way of Wayne and Holmes Counties in Wooster, Ohio illustrates the local love: Debbie Stutz, who had made sure her grandchildren were enrolled a few years ago, is now the local lead for the program. “My excitement grew when I joined the United Way of Wayne and Holmes Counties and discovered I would oversee the local Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program," she wrote. "Can you believe it? The very same program that I had praised and cherished for my grandchildren, I now have the opportunity to help local children create their libraries! We currently have over 5,000 children enrolled in Wayne and Holmes County, which continues to grow.”

As Dolly Parton puts it, you can never get enough books into the hands of children. 

Please join our community-based efforts to help every child in every community read. Find your local United Way here, and find out how you can advance childhood literacy in your own community. 

#ImALifelongLearner #InternationalLiteracyDay #literacy #education

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