The Dolly Parton Imagination Library provides books for children up to age 5 because people give money to invest in them. This message was the focus of the Rotary Club meeting Thursday at the Pine Bluff Country Club.

Rotary Club member Roy Ferrell said the organization had a booth next to the Imagination Library at a recent business expo and began inquiring about the program. He introduced Linda Bateman — the executive director of YouthPartners and the Imagination Library — who has worked in Pine Bluff for more than 25 years to strengthen children and families.

“From 1991 to now, she has worked and volunteered with the United Way and partner agencies in one capacity or another,” Ferrell said. “She loves Pine Bluff and has a passion for helping others and shares a commitment as we all do to better our community.”

Bateman said Dolly Parton founded Imagination Library to help children read and gives money toward this program in her native Eastern Tennessee. Bateman asked for people to give $30 per year to provide books for one child. She also thanked sponsors for giving money to this organization so that Jefferson County children receive books in the mail.

“We have found that the reason it is so important to get children [reading] at any early age is most of the brain development occurs during those first early years,” Bateman said. “Learning to read is like learning to talk, and learning to read is like learning to walk. It's a very important aspect of child development.”

Companies pledged money in 2013 through 2016, and she said she does not want children to receive an interruption in service.

“We work with Jefferson County, but our goal is to spread out into other communities,” Bateman said.

Illiteracy diminishes a person's likelihood for success in life, she said.

“We need this because if children can't read, we will have to hire these adults one day,” Bateman said. “We are going to have to depend on them for several things. Reading involves getting a job [and] completing high school. We know it is an important aspect of life.”

Mary Whiteaker, a YouthPartners board member and a retired educator, said adults can go to any library in Jefferson County to sign up a child through YouthPartners to receive books. She said the organization is working with a hospital and social service organizations to sign up children.

“I don't mind asking for money,” Whiteaker said. “At the business expo a member of my church came up and he said 'I read to my daughter and when she went to college she went in with lots of different [credit] hours because I had read to her.' So he gave me a check for $30.”

Whiteaker said some parents do not know how to read. She asked for people to sponsor a child today. YouthPartners can be reached at 870-534-8251, YouthPartners@pbreynoldscenter.org. or in the Donald W. Reynolds Building at 211 W. 3rd Ave. in Pine Bluff.

Since the initial program launch in the United States in 1996, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library has gone from just a few dozen books to nearly 40 million books mailed to children in the United States, into Canada and across into parts of Europe, according to the Imagination Library website. More information is available at imaginationlibrary.com