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Dolly and Rotary bringing the gift of literacy to kids across Australia

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Anyone who has seen Dolly Parton in concert will agree that the pint-sized singer/songwriter is a gifted story teller. In a bid to share her passion for words, Dolly launched the Imagination Library in 1996. Since then over 56,000,000 books have been gifted to children across the globe.Dolly Parton

On her recent visit to Australia, Dolly Parton shared her passion for reading and her dreams as a child of becoming a singer and songwriter. She described how growing up in a highly disadvantaged area where even her family members could not afford books was the impetus for starting the now global Imagination Library.

“If you can read, you can learn about anything,” says Dolly, whose goal is to inspire a love of reading and learning among all children. To date, she and her local partners have gifted over 56,000,000 books to children across four countries.

The Imagination Library aims to improve early childhood literacy for children by giving them a free, high-quality, age-appropriate book each month from birth to age five.

In Australia, Rotary and United Way are working in partnership to expand and run Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, targeting our most disadvantaged communities first.

Studies show that lower literacy and education levels can be a precursor to social issues such as unemployment and poverty, perpetuating the cycle of disadvantage.

Shockingly, 400 Australian communities have been identified as having a 50 per cent or higher rate of “language vulnerable” children starting school compared with the national average. More so, 82 per cent of these communities don’t have an early literacy initiative in their area.

Language vulnerable children lack the basics – they don’t know how to hold a book and turn the pages, recognise letters and attach sounds to them, count, compare or recognise numbers and basic shapes and they have difficultly remembering things, participating in games involving language and communicating.

“We know one in five Australian children are starting school without the basics they need and in some communities this figure is as high as three in five,” says United Way CEO Doug Taylor. “Encouraging early reading is critical to fostering a love of learning and ongoing career opportunities down the track.”

The United Way network and participating Rotary District partners have signed up 1350 children and distributed more than 4,000 books to children in seven communities in the past six months.  Since 2009, Rotary clubs have provided books to children in more than 300 communities through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

“Strengthening the capacity of communities to support basic education and literacy is a key area of focus for Rotary internationally,” says District 9675 Governor Garry Browne. “We hope that with the support of Rotarians, Rotary clubs and their extensive community networks, we can work with United Way to bring the Imagination Library to communities and make starting school strong a reality for thousands of young children across Australia.”

Rotarians in Wollongong, NSW, have signed up more than 40 children since February, Rotarians are supporting 99 children in Noble Park, Vic, and Illawarra's Rotary clubs have combined and raised funds for 160 children to participate over the next three years.

“In the future, we hope to expand the program to more families and other suburbs in the Illawarra area,” says Assistant District 9675 Governor Sue Clark. “This is a long-term program and the challenge is achieving financial sustainability.”

Through research, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has been shown to:

  • Improve the overall learning preparedness of children (reading, thinking, listening and social skills);
  • Increase the frequency of reading of parents and families to their children as a result of receiving monthly books;
  • Increase the chance they will be read to daily – irrespective of child’s age, gender, family income, parent education, race or primary language spoken at home;
  • Be the primary source of books in the home for over one third of the families on the program.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library can be replicated by any group, in any community across Australia. If your Rotary District or club is interested in supporting children’s literacy visit www.imaginationlibrary.com.au to register your interest.

Image: Dolly Parton with 4-year-old Archie O'Brien and his mum Debbie, from Acacia Ridge in Brisbane, during a press conference at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Victoria. (Photo by Nicole Cleary / Licensed by Newspix).

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