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Dolly Parton's Imagination Library expands, sends free books to Rochester kids citywide

Kenny and Matteo McNair.jpg
photo provided
Ashley McNair's sons Kenny Jr., 3, and Matteo, 5, read books they received from the Rochester Imagination Library.

An effort to get more books into the hands of Rochester's youngest residents is expanding.

The local chapter of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library is now mailing free books each month to pre-school children throughout the city. A pilot program earlier this year was limited to some of Rochester's poorest neighborhoods where children have limited access to books.

"There's no more amazing thing in the universe than a young child's brain," said pediatrician Matt Present. "It's making a million neuronal connections a second and so to take advantage of those fireworks is so, so crucial."

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Dr. Matt Present, founder of the Rochester chapter of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

Present founded the library's Rochester chapter when he was searching for a proven way to enhance children's lives. Studies in 2021 using data from two other chapters, including one in Syracuse, have shown that kids who are enrolled in the program were able to close the kindergarten readiness gap with their wealthier peers within two years.

Providing access to books is a key component of the program. Almost 20 percent of the participating families said all or nearly all of the books in their home came from the Imagination Library.

Participants were 70% more likely to read to their children. Among families living in high poverty areas, that figure rose to 83%.

Ashley McNair lives in the Beechwood section of Rochester with her 3 and 5 year old sons, Kenny Jr. and Matteo. They signed up to get their books two months ago. Before that, McNair said her boys were reading their older sister's hand-me-downs.

“We’d be reading the same books over and over," she said. "With this, we get new books and they’re able to experience new stories better than if the program wasn’t available in our area. It’s broadening their vocabulary and their learning.”

The Rochester pilot program began last spring in the city's 14605 zip code and expanded last summer to households in the 14609 zip code on the northeast side.

Present said there are now 800 participating families with about another 100 being added each month.

"We'll keep going until we can't find anymore kids or until we have to cap the number," he said. "It's important to be able to sustain delivery of the books through up until their fifth birthday. Right now, we have enough runway for about 2,000 kids for two years."

Dolly Parton launched Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in 1995 to benefit the children living in her home county in East Tennessee. Her vision was to instill a love of reading among preschoolers and their families by providing a free, specially selected book each month.

Parton's nonprofit covers administrative, warehouse and technology costs, with local chapters around the U.S. picking up the book and mailing fees. That totals about $2.10 per book.

The Rochester chapter relied on fundraising to reach its goal of a citywide expansion. A $25 donation covers the costs of books for one child for a year.

Heroes Brewery Co. on Atlantic Ave. created “Knowledge Train,” a beer to commemorate the program’s expansion. A release party is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. on Wed. Dec. 7 with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Rochester Imagination Library.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.