Free children’s book program expands to Benton

Free children’s book program expands to Benton
United Way of Northwest Louisiana (Source: United Way)

SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) — A new year, a new opportunity for many ArkLaTex children.

United Way of Northwest Louisiana recently announced it received a generous donation that allowed the nonprofit to expand its Dolly Parton Imagination Library program to the Benton area.

The program, which gave out its 150 millionth free book in 2020, donates one free book each month to children throughout the country until they reach the age of 5. It is an effort to promote literacy in communities nationwide.

“If a child is enrolled at birth, they have the potential to have a library by the time they reach kindergarten of 60 books,” said LaToria Thomas, vice president of community investments and operations at United Way of Northwest Louisiana.

The program already is doing well in several ZIP codes in the organization’s 10-parish region, Thomas said. United Way provided more than 46,000 books to nearly 4,300 children last year alone.

“After calculations, based on our population size of the 10 parishes we cover, it’s about a $1.1 million investment in our community each year. So we’re rolling out the program slowly,” she explained.

“Right now, it’s in parts of Bossier and Caddo parishes. It is also available in DeSoto Parish, Natchitoches, Red River, Sabine and Webster. But we’re doing a lot of hard work and fundraising to bring it to every ZIP code in our region.”

But that without the recent support from a gracious donor, Benton resident Jenna Bagley, the program would have been unable to open up the opportunity to Benton children, Thomas said.

“My son was born with severe hearing loss. One of his speech therapists suggested that I enroll him in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to get him really excited about me reading to him and help develop his vocabulary,” Bagley said. “I looked up the program and found that it wasn’t yet offered where I live. So I partnered with United Way of Northwest Louisiana, and we raised the funds to make it happen!”

The program is not fully funded, which means some children in our community lack access to the free books unless they’re part of a funded ZIP code, Thomas said.

“Currently, more than 50% of children in our region enter kindergarten not ready. Research shows that the number of books in the child’s home is significantly linked to their reading score. The more books in the home, the better the score.”

LIVE INTERVIEW: Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

Donations to the program allow United Way of Northwest Louisiana to buy books at a discounted rate through the Dollywood Foundation. Each book costs about $2.50; and it costs a little more than $30 to sponsor a child for an entire year.

“Our goal is to raise enough funds to provide these books to every child in Northwest Louisiana. It is through our continued corporate support from companies such as AEP-SWEPCO/AEP Foundation and individuals like Ms. Bagley, I believe we can get there,” Thomas said.

Bagley said there are countless proven benefits to having books in the home.

“I wanted to make sure that every kid in my community has the opportunity to develop a love of reading. Thank you so much to all who donated to make this possible. You have truly given an incredible gift to our kids!”

If you’re interested in checking to see if your child is eligible for the program, who to sign up to be part of Imagination Library, or if you’d like to be a donor, click here.

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