Marla Hincke and Chuck Van Gorder check out the features of one of the books mailed out to preschoolers through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

SCOUTING AROUND: Free books give preschoolers chance for success

   Each year, kindergarten teachers like Marla Hincke see children enter school under one of two extremes.
   “Some are avid readers and interested in books,” said Hincke, who teaches at Ranger Elementary/Middle School. “Then there are children who have never been exposed to print, and occasionally children who don’t know the ABCs.”
   About a year ago, she and some other concerned citizens informally started the Dolly Parton Imagination Library of Cherokee County. The Imagination Library program mails a book to preschool children each month, at no cost to families in the program, and they thought it would be a great help to local children.
   “This is going to bring in a book for each child from birth to age 5,” said Chuck Van Gorder of Brasstown, a passionate member of the local group.
   “This is absolutely a wonderful program.”
   Van Gorder learned about the program through volunteering with Matt’s Ministry, which has been administering the Imagination Library program in Clay County for about four years, having mailed 13,927 books to children so far. That program is up to 429 books each month, covering about 90 percent of preschoolers in that county.
   Over the summer, the N.C. General Assembly decided to allocate $3.5 million this first year and $7 million the second year for the Smart Start Network to offer the Imagination Library program. Janice Edgerton, executive director of the Region A Partnership for Children (the western counties’ partner in the Smart Start Network), contacted the local group to partner in bringing books to children in Cherokee County.
   The local group spreads the word to local families and potential sponsors, while Region A manages the paperwork.
   “It has to be a community-supported program,” Edgerton said.
   The word has spread well through social media posts and radio announcements since signups started in late 2017. Since October, 407 of the 1,100 children ages 0-5 in Cherokee County have signed up for the Imagination Library. Edgerton said there is funding allocated from the state for 2,077 children in Cherokee, Graham, Haywood and Jackson counties to receive books; the region was at 1,462 as of last week.
  Within six weeks of signing up, children receive their first book, The Little Engine That Could, in the mail from the Imagination Library in Tennessee. After that first delivery, a new book based on the child’s age is mailed out monthly.
   Some books are fiction, some are non-fiction, some are board books and some are large paperback picture books. All books contain information on how to read the book to child, including tips on questions to ask while reading.
   While the Imagination Library’s goal is to have 60 percent of the population of preschoolers in funded counties in the program, the Cherokee County group would like to see every child under age 5 getting a book each month.
   “Children who have been read to at an early age have a deeper love of learning,” Hincke said. “It just sets them up.”
   She sees the difference even in social interactions and their vocabulary. Plus, children who have books at home are excited to see the same books in their classroom.
   Hincke added that books are the basics for everything early educators do in education. For example, she is teaching subtraction to her students with the story of Three Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.
   Edgerton supports getting books in the hands of every child, and said she would continue to accept signups until the state tells her stop. She also is well aware that what the Legislature agrees to fund one year could be left out in following budgets.
   “Supporting kids needs to be everybody’s responsibility,” Edgerton said. “You can make a difference for children.”
   It costs $35 per child per year to mail a book each month under the program. The local group is looking at ways to raise funds, and were encouraged by Maggie Butler of Matt’s Ministry to just ask people and businesses for donations.
   “We really want to prepare in case that state funding stops,” Hincke said. “We’re going to keep it going even if the state funding stops.”
   To sign up a child or make contributions, call the Region A Partnership for Children at 828-586-0661 or visit the website regionakids.org. All contributions must include “DPIL Cherokee County” in the memo space.
   Samantha Sinclair is Scouting Around columnist for the Cherokee Scout. You can reach her by email, scoutingaround@cherokeescout.com; fax, 837-5832; or by leaving a message in the office at 837-5122.