Imagination Library early childhood literacy program growing across Michigan

Each month, I receive what I consider to be a great example of high-impact philanthropy in my mailbox. Two, actually.

There I find two free books — one addressed to each of my sons — meant to encourage early childhood literacy and get families spending time together reading. The books, which are matched to the recipient’s age, have thus far included such classic works as “Good Night, Gorilla,” “Owl Moon,” “The Little Engine That Could,” and “Corduroy.”

The literary gifts are courtesy of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The program relies on local sponsors to mail out a free, age-appropriate book each month from the time a child is born until they turn 5.

The program dovetails with the United Way’s goal to have 80 percent of all Detroit-area children ready to learn when they enter kindergarten by 2018, up from 50 percent today. The organization cites studies that show that 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 3.

“We want families to commit to reading” 15 to 20 minutes per day, said Amanda Itliong, the United Way’s family literacy manager. “That’s what we’re hoping for because we know that’s what helps build a child, that gives them the building blocks with literacy, spending time with books and giving them a rich experience with their family.”

The Imagination Library program, originally launched by the superstar country singer in 1996 to serve residents in her home county in Tennessee, says it now is used to deliver books to more than 700,000 children in three countries. In Michigan, the program is also in use by the United Way of Southwest Michigan and chapters in Allegan, Lapeer and Saginaw counties and through affiliates including the Great Start Collaborative in Jackson. You can find an Imagination Library affiliate here.

Since launching the program a few years ago, Detroit-based United Way for Southeast Michigan has expanded it to Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, thanks to funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the General Motors Foundation. Itliong says the nonprofit coordinates the Imagination Library program for more than 29,000 of the roughly 68,000 child recipients in Michigan.

Recent initiatives include a partnership with the Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace Hospital to discuss the importance of reading with new mothers and enroll new members in the program. Software IT company Compuware and the Detroit-based College for Creative Studies are also working to develop a mobile app for the United Way on the program.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Itliong said. “It’s actually going to be about tracking the reading and rewarding the reader and having virtual rewards and things like that. It’s going to track a family’s library and what books they have. That will be live we’re hoping in early spring.”

Itliong added that getting to the region’s highest-need families is the top goal.

“There really isn’t a reason for children not to have age-appropriate books in their home because of this program,” she said.

This is a great program worthy of your support. You can find more information about the program and how to contribute here.


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