Literacy Program Touts Millionth Book, Successes

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By Duane Gordon

Dolly Parton autographs an oversized copy of "The Little Engine That Could" held by a representative of Penguin Books. The signed book was presented to 1-year-old Cana Beth Waynick of Danville, Ala., to symbolize the 1 millionth book distributed by Parton's Imagination Library literacy program. Waynick is shown with her parents, John Mark and Carrie Waynick.

DOLLYWOOD -- Dolly Parton's Imagination Library literacy program had a banner day at her east Tennessee theme park on Friday, handing out its 1 millionth book and seeing the release of a study which determined a major impact on the lives of participants. Parton also used the day to present a national educators' honor to a Las Vegas teacher.

       The Imagination Library provides one free book per month to every child from birth to age 5 in a participating area whose parents sign up for the program. The Dollywood Foundation administers the selection, ordering and mailing of the books, which are sent directly to the homes of enrolled children, and local sponsors pay approximately $27 per child for the annual cost of the books and postage. Each book in the 60-volume collection, which starts with The Little Engine That Could, is chosen by a committee comprised of representatives from the education, child development, academia and early childhood literacy areas of expertise.

Parton discusses her library program.

       The Dollywood Foundation on Friday released the results of a study which showed a dramatic increase in literacy in homes where parents utilize the Imagination Library. The study, titled Literacy Outcomes and the Household Literacy Environment: An Evaluation of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, was conducted by the nonprofit High/Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Mich., and was funded by a grant from the Anne E. Casey Foundation.

       "We found that when we asked parents about what happened with the kids and the books when they came to their houses that it made the parents more comfortable reading with their kids, it made them more knowledgeable about their children's literacy levels, it more importantly made them read more frequently to the kids, and perhaps most importantly it made the kids much more interested in books," study director Charles Smith of the High/Scope Foundation explained to Dollymania. "And we think that when we look at all the data in the whole we think that one of the key elements of this program theory is that the kids indeed are really excited when the book shows up and that creates a literacy moment where the parents sit down and read right there."

       In addition, the study, which interviewed 800 families in three participating communities (Sioux Falls, S.D., Morgan County, Ga., and Sevier County, Tenn.), found that more than 70 percent of parents were reading more to their children than before joining the program, and it showed the greatest impact in households where parents had low education levels themselves and in single-parent homes -- "the families who probably need literacy support the most," Smith said.

       Started in 1996 for pre-schoolers in Parton's native Sevier County, Tenn., a $7 million gift from her Dixie Stampede dinner theatre chain in late 1999 provided the administration for expanding the program nationwide. In the four years since, it has expanded 260 communities across 35 states, including a partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide books for 92 Native American communities. The first branch of the program outside the United States is expected to begin operating in Canada next year.

       Seven years after it began in Tennessee, the program in December reached 1 million books distributed, but it is expected to surpass the 2 million mark by the close of 2004, said Dollywood Foundation Executive Director David Dotson.

Taking questions from the press.

       The millionth book arrived in the mailbox of Cana Beth Waynick, the 1-year-old daughter of John Mark and Carrie Waynick of Danville, Ala., a couple of weeks before the ceremony at Dollywood, where about 130 representatives from Imagination Library programs across 12 states had gathered for a "homecoming" celebration. At the event, Penguin Books presented Parton with an oversized copy of The Little Engine That Could to signify the milestone, and a second copy, autographed by her, was given to Waynick.

       Parton was also given a scrapbook containing thank you letters and stories from many of the participating communities.

       "We consider ourselves the little program that could," Parton told the crowd, later explaining that the program was rooted in her belief that through reading all children can succeed and have an outlet for their dreams as well as the fact that many of her own relatives, including her father, were illiterate.

       "I just saw what a hindrance it was and what a heartache it was so many times when people couldn't read and write. My Daddy couldn't even spell our names," she recalled. "It was like he didn't know our names on sight. But he wasn't trying to be into that. But it just always touched me that my Dad was so pure, so sweet, so good, and I was inspired by that."

       She said that her ultimate goal is to have the program providing a book per month to every child in the United States, perhaps someday the entire world.

       "When you start out doing something, you start with a dream," she said of the program's success. "And you just try to work that dream, try to do everything that you can. You don't know how big it's going to get or how big it can get. But you hope for the best. And the fact that God has blessed us with so many great people that work so hard to make this all -- they make me look better than I should. But I'm just so happy to be part of it. We're just amazed at the progress that we've getting, and we're not done yet."

       Also at the ceremony, the Dolly Parton Chasing Rainbows Award for 2003 Teacher Of The Year was presented to John Snyder of Las Vegas, Nev. The award was first presented to Parton by the National State Teachers Of The Year Organization in early 2002 in honor of her work for education through the Dollywood Foundation. Later that year, its first teacher recipient was named. Nominees, who may either be currently teaching or retired, must have been previous winners of their state Teacher Of The Year award. They must demonstrate an overcoming of obstacles and outstanding performance in the classroom. In addition to an award, the teacher's name is added to a crystal piece on display in the front window of Parton's Chasing Rainbows Museum on the grounds of Dollywood.

Parton with Snyder and his family.

       The former student who nominated Snyder, who is confined to a wheelchair, wrote: "If each high school student had one teacher like Mr. Snyder, they would all have the confidence to prevail. It was in his sparking blue eyes and encouraging heart that I found my hope and my will to succeed. And I never even saw his wheelchair."

       In accepting the honor, Snyder said: "I'm deeply honored, but in spite of the fact that I'm in education myself, I hope that I can even approach the inspiration that Dolly Parton gives to the people to continue their education and to continue learning, to change the world for the better like she is. Thank you."

       For information on the Imagination Library, contact the Dollywood Foundation at 865-428-9606 or visit its Web site here.