Jim Caldwell (left), executive director of the United Way of Southeast Arkansas; Linda Bateman, executive director of Youth Partners; and Gene Hunt, chairman of Youth Partners, look over materials associated with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program. (Special to the Commercial/William Harvey)
Every book has an ending, but its influence can last forever.
United Way of Southeast Arkansas Director Jim Caldwell wants to help put that philosophy to work here.
Academic, business and community leaders joined Caldwell for a March 13 conference here on entertainer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program in which a new book is delivered to children — from newborn to age 5 — each month at their homes at no cost to the recipients or their parents. A monthly fee of just $2.08 per child is paid by a sponsoring non-profit.
Locally, Youth Partners — one of the local UW’s 26 partnering agencies — has stepped forward, pledging to underwrite the project contingent on community support. Pine Bluff attorney Eugene Hunt, a member of Youth Partners’ Board of Directors, says the notion of young children being educated through reading is “a personal matter.”
Hunt, a former state court of appeals judge, grew up primarily in Wabbaseka. His parents were illiterate, although his mother learned to read while Hunt attended Townsend Park High School here. At 67, Hunt is now able to enjoy an activity his parents missed with him.
“I read to my great-grandchild every night,” Hunt said. “I’ve been doing it for several years now, and I’ve seen firsthand how much he’s enjoyed and learned from it. He’s 6 now, and every day he reminds me that I’ll be reading to him later. If I get behind, he helps me to remember that I need to read with him.”
Hunt said as much as the boy relishes the nightly experience, he’s not certain who most treasures the bonding.
“I look forward to it just as he does,” said Hunt, who briefly served as a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. “I think reading is one of the most precious things we can do for our children and ourselves.”
Experts agree, saying that studies have shown that children who are regularly read to and especially those who develop some reading skills themselves before the age of 5 generally perform better in school and wind up with better-paying careers. White Hall Middle School Principal Doug Dorris, who attended last week’s conference, confirmed those findings.
“Reading always makes a positive difference for children,” said Dorris.
Reading activities also have been found to enrich children’s self-esteem, according to MaryAnne Williams of Des Arc, coordinator of the Margaret Fisher Literary Challenge Imagination Library of Prairie and Woodruff counties. Williams said the children’s’ newly generated awareness bolsters their confidence.
Pine Bluff and Jefferson County Library System Director Michael Sawyer, who often reads to his young grandson, rated the Imagination Library effort as “wonderful,” adding, “Once you get children hooked on reading, you’ve got them for life.”
Dollywood Foundation Regional Director Pam Hunsaker of Columbia, Mo., pointed out that such addiction isn’t limited just to children. Hunsaker said that for the youngsters who have the Imagination Library age-appropriate books as selected by a panel of experts delivered in the children’s names to their homes, “It isn’t just the presence of the books or their value in money. It is the time spent sharing their own books with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, learning to love books and finding joy in reading.”
Hunsaker added that the children’s reactions have also inspired other positives, as some parents and grandparents who had previously been unable to read the English-only books from Penquin Publishing have actually enrolled in classes so they can learn how to share in their children’s reading pleasures.
Hunt sees Parton’s program as a “Godsend,” especially in the Delta area, which he said has an illiteracy rate of around “25 or 26 percent.” Saying he’s been “impressed,” he appreciates that the program is “teaching parents to improve so they can read to their child.”
“It’s fighting poverty with education,” Hunt said. “It punctuates the level of attention we should give to our children. I can’t say enough about Jim Caldwell and his foresight in bringing this to our attention. It puts the feet of Youth Partners on the ground right at the point where we can make a continuing contribution.” The organization is already busy formulating a data base of children eligible for the service.
“It’s something we could all share in,” Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said. “At less than 50 cents a week for a child and his or her family to spend quality time together enjoying themselves and learning in the process, I think the returns on our investments would be on-going and mutually beneficial. Getting us to where we want to be as a city is a process, and whenever we can find an avenue like this for helping ourselves and our future generations, we would be wise to give it our full consideration.”