Community Builders: Imagination Library

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Story and Photos by Tony Farkas

Kaye Boehning displays books available to children through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program, which ships books free of charge to children ages 0-5

As the song “Teach Your Children” goes, Kaye Boehning works not only on the foundations of a child’s education but on their well-being as well. Using her Montessori school, Tomorrow’s Promise, and through her local administration of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library project in Walker County, Kaye provides children ages 0-5 with books, which gives a child a leg up on learning.

“About a year ago, a friend came to me and said she heard about the Dolly Parton project,” Boehning said. “She said a non-profit would have to administer and asked if I would be interested. I knew instantly I had to do it.” Boehning started researching the project, filled out the paperwork, and launched it.

“I held back at first because of funding, but managed to enroll about 200 children at the (Huntsville) Fair on the Square last year,” she said. “This summer, I was praying, and it came to me that I needed to make books available to all kids. So, I had to figure out how to publicize that. I took the enrollment form, got display holders, and placed them in doctor’s offices and the like to get more kids enrolled.”

Boehning’s participation in the program grew out of her love of education. “I had fun showing my 18-month-old child how to do things,” she said. “I had a degree in art, and was working at a bank doing marketing, but I was frustrated at having people tell me what to do. I had a thought: What do I want to tell people I did when I was older? Tell people I helped with taxes, or that I made a difference in the world?”

Boehning got a master’s degree in education and began looking at teaching methods and results. She then took a summer, was trained in the Montessori method, and immediately started a school. According to the school’s website, Tomorrow’s Promise, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation organized exclusively for educational purposes. Its mission is to provide an excellent Montessori education for K-6 as well as providing care for infants, toddlers, preschool, and after-school children.

The environment encourages the development of the skills and habits that facilitate a life-long love for learning, providing a quality educational foundation for students to encourage competence, problem-solving skills, and self-motivation, as well as becoming moral, personal and socially responsible individuals. The Montessori method helps stimulate both the concrete and abstract portions of the brain; as opposed to the first two years of school, which focuses on learning to read, and then in second grade, education shifts to reading to learn. “The problem with waiting until the second grade is the brain has developed already; 50 percent of what you learn is learned by the age of 4,” she said. “If we can start (earlier), then this can help kids test higher,” she said.

Boehning said that God gave her the chance she was supposed to have, so she started school, and then the next logical step was the Dolly Parton program. “If we can get a parent to read to children, it’s one of the best indicators of success in school,” she said. There’s a social benefit to reading as well, Boehning said. “If a child walks into a classroom and sees a book they’ve read, they’ve got a friend,” she said. “And if another child comes up and they’re looking at the same book, they now have something in common. Kids are unique in their values, and if there’s a commonality between children like a book, we’ve broken down a barrier. It affects teachers as well, who would have to spend more time with children that have not had the benefit of early reading. “I can tell in my classes which children are read to and which are not,” she said. “(A child’s) IQ can be affected up to 25 points higher or lower based on early childhood experiences.

The program allows a personal message to be placed on a page in the book; at first, Boehning started with “The future begins today,” but later changed her message to say “Jesus loves you.” “I heard on the radio about a … school shooting and I read about how the suicide rate in kids has tripled,” she said. “I thought if ‘Jesus loves you’ is going into the homes, maybe the kid will feel someone loves them.”

The Program

According to the website imaginationlibrary.com, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails free, high-quality books to children from birth until they begin school, no matter their family’s income.

We have gotten some emails from parents saying how much they appreciate the program. The end result I hope to see is that children enter school and, because of the program, we see their test scores go up.

After launching in 1995, the program grew quickly. First books were only distributed to children living in Sevier County, Tenn., where Dolly grew up. It became such a success that in 2000 a national replication effort was underway. By 2003, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library had mailed 1million books. After the United States, the program launched in Canada in 2006 followed by the United Kingdom in 2007, Australia in 2013 and the Republic of Ireland in 2019.

“Statistics show there is one book for every 300 children in low-income families; how can you read and develop a love of learning if you don’t have exposure to books?” Boehning asked. “The public library is great, but nowadays you don’t let your kids walk to the library.”

The way the program works is that once enrolled, a child receives a book a month through age 5. Boehning said the Dolly Parton program pays for the costs of the books, and the school pays for the cost of shipping, which amounts to $2.10 per book. There is no cost to the family.

The books are mailed to the child’s home, and it is personalized with the child’s name and is theirs to keep. The children will receive a book a month. “If they sign up at birth, they’ll have 60 books by the time they turn 5,” Boehning said. “When they turn 5, they get a book that says they’re ready for kindergarten.”

To register a child, parents can sign up online or can pick up a registration form at one of 16 locations around Huntsville. It takes 6 to 8 weeks for books to start arriving.

The program does need sponsors, so on the website tomorrow’s promise. info, people can donate to help defray shipping costs. Boehning said $25 will cover the cost of one child to receive books for one year; if she achieves her dream of enrolling every eligible child, it will cost about $25,000 per year.

Also, anyone wanting to volunteer to help with upkeep on enrollment forms would also be welcome. Boehning said she hopes to have every eligible child in Walker County enrolled, which comes to 1,500 to 1,800 children that fit the demographic. Currently, there are 513 children enrolled.

Children can enroll in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program via enrollment forms, which are currently available at Good Shepherd Mission, the mission Thrift Store, the WIC office, the Saafe House, McNease Pharmacy, the offices of Dr. Stephen H. Means and Dr. Casey Frazier, Workforce Solutions, Clinical Pathology Labs, Inc., Huntsville Memorial Hospital, Target CVS, Kroger, Walmart, and two Smileys locations on Highway 19 and Veterans Memorial Parkway.

For additional information, visit the Dolly Parton Imagination Library at imaginationlibrary.com; email tpms1@msm.com; or call (936) 435-0303

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