Program provides free books for preschoolers

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Hillary Gavan/Beloit Daily News Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther and Janesville Police Chief David Moore read to children after a press conference held by the United Way Blackhawk Region on Wednesday afternoon at Blackhawk Technical College. The United Way Blackhawk Region announced an investment in a program giving free books to children.

JANESVILLE - The United Way Blackhawk Region announced an investment of $150,000 in Dolly Parton's Imagination Library during a press conference at Blackhawk Technical College on Wednesday afternoon.

Intended as a three-year rollout, the program will benefit children in Beloit, Edgerton and Janesville with hopes for expansion to additional communities in the Blackhawk Region in the future, said United Way President and CEO Mary Fanning-Penny.

Thanks to Dolly Parton's Imagination Library and investment by United Way Blackhawk Region, a free age-appropriate book will be mailed each month to children enrolled in the program from birth to age 5 living in the three communities.

The Imagination Library first arrived in Beloit three years ago thanks to Beloit volunteer Bobbi Sampson. Sampson obtained $30,000 in grant funding for implementation of the program in Beloit. As of Wednesday, Sampson said 11,311 books had been dispensed since 2015. However, 310 families were still on the waiting list, and Sampson said she was glad the program was getting taken up by United Way Blackhawk Region to get more books to kids.

Sampson said she volunteered to get the program going in Beloit because she said it helped her children who benefited from it when her family lived in Alaska.

Wednesday's press event featured Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther and Janesville Police Chief David Moore who read to students in a special book nook following the event. It also included remarks from School District of Beloit Interim Superintendent Darrell Williams, Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal and Edgerton School District Superintendent Dennis Pauli. Representatives from Beloit, Hedberg and Edgerton public libraries were in attendance as well as United Way Blackhawk Region's Board of Directors, Community Impact Council, Program Partners and literacy advocates.

Williams praised Sampson for her help providing so many books to children in the Beloit community. He said he was happy to see Parton's vision is breaking barriers in the community and around the world. In between the pages of a book, he said, people can go everywhere without having to go anywhere.

Pophal said literacy is the human rights issue of the time. He said each child deserves equal opportunities to read and encouraged more community efforts to bolster literacy.

Fanning-Penny said success begins with literacy and education, and the mere presence of books is power.

"Research has shown children who grow up in homes with at least 20 books attain on average three more years of schooling than students from bookless homes regardless of parental income, education or economic class," Fanning-Penny added.

Families interested in enrolling eligible children may visit LiveUnitedBR.org/freebooks to learn more.

While enrollment in Imagination Library is open to everyone, funding is limited. United Way Blackhawk Region will also be working with ensure organizations supporting under-served families will have enrollment materials on hand, particularly community hubs such as local public libraries, HeadStart, food pantries and more.

It only costs $30 to support a child's participation in the Imagination Library program for a year or $150 to support a child from birth to age 5. Donations can be made payable to United Way Blackhawk Region's Imagination Library by check or online at LiveUnitedBR.org/freebooks.

Inspired by her own father's inability to read and write, Dolly Parton's dream was to foster a love of reading among preschool children and their families by gifting them with a specially selected book each month. After launching in 1995 in Sevier County, Tennessee, the program quickly grew. By 2003, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library had mailed one million books. For more information visit ImaginationLibrary.com.

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