For more than two decades, the legendary singer/songwriter Dolly Parton put books in the hands of America’s youngest kids. Now, a group of book-loving Loudoun teachers and moms has launched the county’s first chapter of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which will send a free book every month to western Loudoun kids 5 and under.
The new Loudoun DPIL chapter, Roots Grow Wings, launched earlier this month in conjunction with Parton’s 75th birthday.
“It was sort of a pipe dream and then COVID hit. … It was like that was our call to urgency,” said Emerick Elementary School reading specialist Susan Lyons who spearheaded the local group. “We were seeing lots of kids who were at home. … Everybody’s got a COVID project—this is our COVID project.”
The project was brought to life by a group of Loudoun teachers and moms in partnership with the Rotary Club of Leesburg. Lyons first heard about the program 18 years ago while a student at Fordham University and kept it in the back of her mind over the years. She started a conversation with Emerick parent Sarah Lynch about launching a DPIL chapter after Lynch’s daughter Beatrice performed a knockout version of Parton’s classic “9 to 5” at the school’s talent show. The pair got fellow Emerick parent Kristin O’Rourke and Lyons’s friend and fellow teacherCarrie Henze, a classroom teacher at Cool Spring Elementary School, on board. And when COVID hit, the group project was off and running.
DPIL requires every local chapter to partner with 5019(c)(3) nonprofit to facilitate mailing and accounting, and the Loudoun group found an enthusiastic partner in the Rotary Club of Leesburg. Rotary members Ernie Carnevale and Phil Daley serve as liaisons for Roots Grow Wings.
“They were just all in from the very beginning. They shared the same excitement and passion that we had for this project.” O’Rourke said.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was launched in 1995 as an early childhood literacy initiative in Parton’s home county ofSevier County, Tennessee. Since then, it has expanded around the country and around the world and has now distributed more than 150 million books.
One of the DPIL Foundation’s goals is to level the playing field before kindergarten and provide children with common ground and a shared experience as they enter kindergarten. The program is open to children of all income levels.
“[Parton] felt strongly that if kids came to school on a level playing field with the same exposure to books that their experience would be different,” Lyons said. “Her idea was more about making sure that all children regardless of socioeconomic background have that same access.”
Lynch adds that in affluent communities there may be other factors limiting access to books—especially during a pandemic.
The program offers a carefully curated collection of books, with children receiving a new book once a month for up to five years. A local chapter can send a year’s worth of books to a child for just $25. Every child starts with Watty Piper’s 1930 classic “The Little Engine That Could” and finishes the program with D.J. Steinberg’s 2012 favorite “Kindergarten, Here I Come!”
“[Parton’s] thinking behind doing that is if they all finish with the same book, they walk into kindergarten, and they all have a book that connects them,” Lyons said. “They all have the same title that they can talk about.”
With a carefully selected and diverse book list, children receive titles from Beatrix Potter to contemporary classics like Matt de la Pena’s award-winning “Last Stop On Market Street.”
“One of the beautiful things about this program is that the foundation has a group that curates the books,” O’Rourke said. “I think it’s the diversity in the books that sparks those questions and that thirst for knowledge and brings up those conversations that you wouldn’t typically have at your dinner table or in your day-to-day life.”
The DPIL foundation recommends that local chapters fundraise for two years worth of mailings before launch. The Loudoun chapter is currently in the fundraising phase and will begin pre-registering Loudoun’s little ones from three Loudoun ZIP codes later this year. The chapter will start with the 20132, 20117 and 20118 ZIP codes covering Purcellville, Hillsboro and Middleburg and hope to expand their reach as the program grows.
The organizers, whom Lyons describes “a bunch of bookworms” are no longer parents of babies and toddlers themselves, but are on a mission to serve the next wave of Loudoun kiddos.
“All of us are book lovers and it’s not just about the act of reading, it’s about all of the other things that come with reading. … It’s a phrase that I use all the time—books are both a window and a mirror. It’s a way to connect us, a way to see ourselves in these books but also see others,” Lyons said. “The ripple effect is so huge in terms of creating a community that supports and encourages and wraps their arms around literacy. This is so much bigger than free books.”
Roots Grow Wings has launched a virtual fundraising campaign via its Facebook page and website. The group also plans to participate in Give Choose Day organized by the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties on March 16. And for Lyons, the new group has an irresistible hook.
“Who doesn’t want to give babies books?” she said.
For more information on Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Loudoun-Roots Grow Wings, go to facebook.com/rootsgrowwings or rootsgrowwings.org.
For information on Give Choose Day, go to givechoose.org.