Approximately 700 babies are born each year at Jefferson Regional in Pine Bluff.

Approximately 700 babies are born each year at Jefferson Regional in Pine Bluff. Thanks to a relationship with the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club, those children now leave the hospital with an educational advantage – a free membership to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

“About three years ago our club heard a presentation about the program,” says Lelan Stice, immediate past president of West Pine Bluff Rotary. “Linda Bateman of Youth Services manages the Imagination Library for Jefferson County, and she explained that reading to children between birth and age three was the most impactful time to build their love for books and learning. If you can establish that by the age of five, children tend to do significantly better throughout their entire educational experience. That made me start wondering: how could we utilize that program to make an impact in South Arkansas?”

The Imagination Library was launched in 1995 by singer Dolly Parton, in part as a tribute to her father, who never learned to read. Initially, the program only benefited the children of her home county in east Tennessee. Each child received a high quality, age-appropriate book each month at no cost until the age of five, when they started kindergarten, regardless of the family’s income. Expansion came quickly, first across the country and then across the globe. The first book order in 1995 was just over 1,700. Today, more than one million books are sent each month to children around the world, inspiring them to read and foster a love for learning. The Imagination Library has even partnered with the American Printing House for the Blind to make many of the books available in braille and audio formats.

Stice was fairly new to Rotary when he first learned about the program, but he understood the importance of introducing children to books at an early age. “My wife was relentless in reading to our children early. They all could read before they ever went to school, and our youngest could read before he could talk. He spent a lot of time just searching on the iPad or laptop, and you can’t do that if you can’t read well.”

When Stice became president-elect of West Pine Bluff, he decided to present his idea as a Rotary project. “If you can get both clubs together, you have a better chance of getting a grant,” he says, “and literacy is one of the key focuses for Rotary, so I felt pretty good about the possibilities.” Both clubs agreed, and the group received a $5,000 Rotary grant, the largest grant the district awarded last year. Then they began contacting other potential donors. “We got a contribution from the Trinity Foundation,” Stice says, “and a few local businesses.” Recent donations have come from Fifty for the Future and the Simmons First Foundation, which awarded West Pine Bluff Rotary it’s $1,000 mini grant. That opens the door for the organization to apply next for the Foundation’s $25,000 grant. The local Rotary clubs also helped out by donating an additional $1,500 from a project that had ended. “For years, Rotary went to local schools and handed out dictionaries to third graders,” Stice says. “Visitors aren’t so easily allowed in the schools anymore, and every child has a smart phone, so a dictionary is really obsolete. The clubs were generous and offered that money to the Imagination Library project.”

Registration is easy; newborns are signed up for the program before they ever leave the hospital. “Babies born at Jefferson Regional are enrolled by our nurses and they leave with the very first book – the Little Engine That Could. All the books are based on positive values, and as the children get older, they can actually go into the system and choose their own books. At age five, when they should be heading off to kindergarten, they receive the last book, which is Hello Kindergarten, Here I Come.”

The plan was to start enrolling children early this year, but the arrival of COVID-19 changed everything, so calls are now being made to families so their children can be enrolled over the phone. So far, approximately 150 children have been signed up for Jefferson County. A total of 500 books have been purchased so far.

“The program costs about $25,000 a year - $25 per child, per year,” Stice says, “and some children who are signed up here will automatically transfer to a program in their home county after leaving the hospital, so our club doesn’t literally pay for every child born here. Right now we’re funded through the end of the year, but there’s more money coming, and the possibilities for growth are really strong. As I mentioned, we’ll be applying to the Simmons Foundation for their $25,000 grant, which I think you get for two years if you’re approved, and they were very encouraging after we received the mini grant.” Stice also says some fundraisers are in the works, including a large event that hasn’t been done in this area before. “The coronavirus has been holding us back, but we’re hoping to unveil that soon.”

Right now, Stice wants to make sure the program is fully financed for the new few years, but his long-term goal is much loftier. “We’d like to raise about a million dollars so we can turn it over to the Rotary Foundation. They will manage the funds and put them where they can grow I’d like to reach a point where we’ve raised enough money so it can be a sustaining program with Rotary International and they can run it forever. It’s going to take a lot more donations and a lot more support from the community, but it can change the future of our youth.”

To find out if children in your county are eligible for the free book program, go to HYPERLINK ""