HANCOCK COUNTY — An annual fundraiser supporting an early childhood literacy program raised more than six times its goal.
Imagination Library Week brought in almost $61,900 through a combination of dine-and-donate evenings, contests and fundraisers at county schools — all topped off by a 50 percent match from an anonymous donor.
Hancock County Community Foundation president Mary Gibble announced the total on Friday.
“We totally blew our goal of $10,000 out of the water,” she said.
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, which raises the money to buy books for children who participate, and the Hancock County Public Library, which handles the administrative duties, including enrolling eligible families.
The program provides a free age-appropriate book each month to children of Hancock County residents born on or after Jan. 1, 2016. The program costs $26 per child per year.
The library encourages new parents to enroll their children in the program and offers special storytime events twice a year just for kids enrolled in Imagination Library, said assistant director Barb Roark.
She said she appreciates the selection process the Dollywood Foundation undergoes in order to provide diverse, different books each year, she said. The first book every child receives is “The Little Engine That Could,” but after that, books change every year, she said.
The community foundation pursued the Imagination Library program in response to learning in fall 2015 that some 40 percent of Hancock County children fell below kindergarten literacy assessments given by county educators, Gibble said.
When children don’t come to school ready to read, they’re more likely to fall behind, she said.
Area schools jumped on board for the week dedicated to funding the program, holding contests and fundraisers to encourage students and families to donate.
Gibble said she loves seeing schoolchildren showing their enthusiasm for reading by raising money for the Imagination Library program.
“The children of the community are giving back to other children,” she said. “It’s a really grassroots effort.”
The community foundation is working to build a $2 million endowment over the next four years to cover book expenses and sustain the Imagination Library program. A $2 million endowment will generate enough funding for 3,500 children to receive 12 books per year before the child’s fifth birthday — that’s 60 books per child. More than $900,000 has been raised since November 2015.
An annual bowling fundraiser in April also goes toward the Imagination Library, said organizer Denna Gundrum, co-owner of Penny’s Florist. The business raised some $2,500 during Imagination Library week, and Gundrum will continue to raise money for the Imagination Library through October in honor of her late husband, Ken Gundrum, who died last March.
He was strongly in support of the program, she said, and organized previous fundraisers.
“I’m always excited to tell people about Imagination Library, and once I’ve done it, they’re on board,” she said. “It’s an even bigger bonus when I can get someone to enroll.”