GREENFIELD — Kendra Ball laughed loudly as she watched her young daughter, Kayla, scoot across the floor of their living room, a picture book clutched tightly in each hand.
In the first year of her life, Kayla has brought the family great joy, Ball said, with her bright smile, her big personality and her unmistakable laugh. And to her mother’s delight, she loves to sit and read.
A year ago, Kayla became the first child to sign up for the Imagination Library program, an initiative to provide monthly books to the county’s youngest readers.
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More than 275 youngsters in Hancock County have since enrolled in Imagination Library; now, as the program enters its second year, organizers are poised to expand. When the program kicked off in 2016, any child born that year was eligible to enroll. This year, the program is open to any child age 1 and younger. By 2020, children 5 and young may receive monthly books in the mail.
Imagination Library, an early childhood literacy program launched by the Dollywood Foundation in 1995, is made possible locally through a partnership between the community foundation and the Hancock County Public Library, which work in tandem to enroll children and distribute books.
The program’s premise is simple — provide a free book each month to each child until their fifth birthday — but it targets readers at an important developmental stage, organizers say.
In fall 2015, 40 percent of Hancock County children fell below kindergarten literacy assessments given by county educators, said community foundation president Mary Gibble. When children don’t come to school ready to read, they’re more likely to fall behind, she said.
“We wanted to proactively fill those learning gaps and get them ready to learn when they get to kindergarten,” she said. “We identified a gap in service, and the Imagination Library is a consistent way to touch the lives of Hancock County children.”
Kayla was the county’s first baby born in 2015, and Gibble was one of her first visitors. Ball remembers listening as an excited Gibble told her about the program; Bell was instantly hooked.
Over the next 12 months, Kayla and dozens of other children across Hancock County have received one age-appropriate book a month for the family to enjoy together. Ball said she often uses the Imagination Library website to see what story is headed for their mailbox in the upcoming months.
Kayla already has her favorite stories, Ball said. When she was first born, a picture book filled with only black and white images held her attention. As she got a bit older, her favorite became a book that taught baby sign language.
Whenever Ball meets a new mother, she tells them about the Imagination Library program and encourages them to sign up.
Reading together not only bolsters the bonds between parent and child, but looking at books, holding books and hearing their parents read to them helps babies’ brains develop, said Hancock County Public Library assistant director Barb Roark.
“As infants, they listen to the intonations of Mom’s voice going up and down,” Roark explained. “As they get older, they begin learning to read, picking up words and even knowing how to hold the books. It even helps with hand-eye coordination. It’s just good all the way around.”
As the program opens to more children this year, organizers are reminding parents of the many ways they can learn more. Community foundation and library officials have worked hard to put brochures and information in the hands of those who come into contact with parents most often. Hancock County parents-to-be might hear about the Imagination Library program at their doctor’s office, at the Hancock County Public Library, or at Hancock Regional Hospital when their child is born.
New parents at the hospital receive a packet of information, which includes information about how to get a child enrolled, Roark said, adding that hospital staff members have gone out of their way to encourage new parents to sign their babies up.
Part of the community foundation’s efforts with Imagination Library include building a $2 million endowment over the next four years to cover the expenses of providing books and sustaining the program, Gibble said. A $2 million endowment would generate enough funding for 3,500 children to receive 12 books per year until the child turns 5.
The foundation encourages donations of all sizes, starting at $26 — the cost of providing books to one child for a year.
Sandra Miller, a member of the Hancock County Community Foundation’s board of directors, has joined Ball and Gibble as one of the program’s biggest cheerleaders. She’s so passionate about the program, she recently donated $25,000 to help keep it going for future Hancock County babies.
Reading is a skill that helps a person become successful, Miller said; Imagination Library helps the county’s youngest residents get a head start on that success.
“I hope all children of Hancock County will be beneficiaries of this program,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”