Pam Gregory, President and CEO of United Way Lower Eastern Shore, and Kat Rodgers, Director of Community Health Initiatives in Public Health Management at Tidal Health and a mother of two, recently announced a new collaboration dubbed SmartStart, to improve access to an already popular and successful children’s literacy initiative. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2022.
The United Way and Tidal Health were already partners in a health literacy initiative, so it seemed natural to expand the existing partnership and streamline the process of enrolling newborns in the Imagination Library program.
“Reading at an early age is critical to social, emotional and cognitive development as well as motor skills,” said Gregory. “Health literacy research shows that reading to infants from birth sets them up better for language learning, love of reading and also bonding with their parents as they feel, touch and look at pictures together and especially for learning language skills.”
Here's what is changing: Enrollment will become automatic for babies born at TidalHealth Peninsula Regional in Salisbury and TidalHealth Nanticoke in Seaford, unless the mother opts out. Enrollment information will be part of the new mother packet provided by Tidal Health.
The Imagination Library initiative, created in 2012 to combat illiteracy in Parton’s home county in Tennessee, has during the past decade expanded beyond Tennessee to operate currently in four countries: the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Enrollees receive by mail a new book each month. By the time a participant is 5 years old, he or she will have amassed a home library of about 60 books.
In July 2012, the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore, in partnership with the Wicomico Public Library, mailed its first shipment of 156 books to Lower Shore children. Today, more than 4,600 books are shipped each month to Lower Shore babies and children.
Rodgers said the books that come with Imagination Library, and books in general, can help parents teach their children language skills.
“My son was among the first children enrolled,” Rodgers said. “He was diagnosed with selective mutism and has difficulty speaking in certain social situations. I had him working with a speech therapist because of his delayed speech development, but I also read to him every day.”
Rodgers said she would practice words with him to build confidence, helped prepare him for success in kindergarten, where he would be expected to speak up. This confidence booster, in combination with speech therapy, reading and communicating, set him up for success in elementary school.
The program has a proven track record, Gregory said.
“We see benefits by the end of a child’s enrollment,” she said. “Schools inform us that children who have participated in Imagination Library test as more-ready for kindergarten than their peers overall within Wicomico County. This is not just in reading, but across the curriculum.”
Rodgers said there are additional benefits too, because many lack easy access to public libraries because of constraints like work schedules or transportation.
“Library books, although free to use, have to be checked out and returned,” Rodgers said. “This program allows children to build their own libraries at home with books that contain beautiful artwork and engaging stories that remain accessible beyond age 5 (when the program ends). They can read the same books over and over.”
Imagination Library includes a collection of classic titles, plus books by new authors.
Among the new authors is Sue Fleiss, a graduate of Salisbury University who has a couple of titles in the Imagination Library series. She stopped by the UWLES office in 2019 and posed for a photo of one of her books, “The Bug Book.”
Imagination Library not only helps with barriers like a lack of transportation or busy work schedules that make library access difficult, during COVID lockdown periods the home delivery model was perfect, Gregory said. Not only that, there are relatively few libraries on the Lower Shore.
There’s more to the SmartStart collaboration than books. It also provides age-appropriate car seats to children enrolled in the program.
Funding is provided through grants and a variety of other sources. In 2012 Imagination Library was funded by a PNC Grow Up Great early learning initiative grant. A grant from CareFirst is providing funding for car seats through Tidal Health.
“We are fortunate on the book side to already have a number of funders who have made the program successful,” Gregory said. “This has given us and our funders confidence to take this to the next level.”
She said Tidal Health and United Way may even co-submit grants in the future.
“The state of Maryand has just passed a bill designed to offer affiliates like us the opportunity to apply for matching grant funds,” Gregory said. “Historically, this program has only been funded in Baltimore. We are the third largest provider in Maryland for Imagination Library.”
“Once we get started, SmartStart will be part of the discharging process after childbirth – before the new mother goes home. Each mother will receive a brochure explaining the program, and it will offer electronic signatures.” This eliminates the need to fill out a form and put it in the mail, which may not be a priority for a busy mother of a newborn. The discharge packet will also include information about the free car seats.
None of the services included with SmartStart require payment.
“Everything in SmartStart is free to anyone,” Rodgers said, “which removes all stigma, barriers, red tape and other access issues.”