Schools join in literacy initiative

HANCOCK COUNTY — In an effort to engage future generations of students, the county’s public school systems have partnered with the Hancock County Community Foundation to support a program that provides free books to local families.

School officials are helping stir interest from within their districts to support a fundraising campaign for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a national program designed to foster early literacy and learning habits among children from birth to 5 years old. Over the summer, officials from the Hancock County Public Library and the community foundation announced plans to launch the local program, which will provide free books to qualifying local families who enroll.

Fundraising efforts kicked off last week and will continue for the next five years, when foundation members hope to have $2 million raised to sustain the program for years to come.

Jessica Neill, literacy coach at Eastern Hancock Elementary School, is a member of the steering committee and said she’s eager to get the program off the ground.

“In public education, a lot of times, we feel like our hands are tied as far as what we can do to reach out of students who haven’t yet entered the district, because we just can’t afford to do that on our own,” she said.

But the benefits of reaching those students and promoting early literacy can be huge, said Mary Gibble, president of the community foundation.

“This program will help promote reading during those tender early years of childhood, before those children enter the school systems but still need to begin recognizing concepts that they can learn from being read to.”

To help generate funds, Neill is considering organizing a book drive that would collect old or unused books from district families.

Officials from Mt. Vernon, Greenfield-Central and Southern Hancock school corporations have also committed to generating funds for the campaign.

Jeff Bond, Mt. Vernon curriculum director, said the program will ensure that families who sign up receive quality reading materials that are age-appropriate.

“It’s important that our families are not only reading to their children but that they’re also reading books that are high-quality and suited to their age.”

Money raised from each district will be contributed to the community foundation’s matching event, which will take place from Nov. 9 to 13.

During that time, the foundation will contribute 50 cents for every dollar raised.

Neill said she’s promoting the program to teachers and encouraging them to share information with parents who have younger children who will qualify for the program.

In 2004, United Way of Central Indiana helped launch an Imagination Library that was extended to Hancock County, but after funding ran out, the program couldn’t be sustained, Gibble said.

To avoid a similar scenario, Gibble said she plans to introduce the program to ages incrementally.

Families with children born on or after Jan. 1, 2016, can begin signing up for the program during the first year. In 2017, the program will open up to families with children born in that year, and that pattern will continue until 2020, when the program will be open to all children younger than 5 years old.

Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or