The Rotary Club of Fort McMurray has positioned itself as a champion of literacy in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray and several small, mainly First Nations communities.
The literacy program, which is offered in partnership with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, provides books to children from birth to age five, at no cost to the family.
“We thought the program would have an impact,” says Rotarian Julianne North Bourque, who has co-ordinated the program since its inception in October 2010. “If we can encourage children to read from an early age, they will go further in their education.”
According to its website, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library has mailed more than 70 million books to children from newborns to age five since it was established by the award-winning country music star in 1995.
In a 2016 article, Forbes magazine wrote that despite her many awards, “the moniker she’s most proud to answer to might be the one she’s least known for: ‘the Book Lady.’”
The program was inspired by Parton’s father, Robert, who never learned to read or write. The Forbes article quotes the singer: “I started my Imagination Library in honor of my dad. He didn’t live long enough to see it do well, but it’s a wonderful program that I take a lot of pride in.”
Learn more at the District conference
Rotarians who attend the District conference in Fort McMurray, September 28 to 30 will have an opportunity to learn more about the Imagination Library. Julianne says there will be a display in the House of Friendship.
In addition, David Dotson, the president of the Dollywood Foundation, will be speaking at the conference.
As well mailing children books monthly, the library sends parents suggested ways to encourage their children to read.
One tip Julianne feels is important is that fathers read to their children. “Children, particularly boys, who don’t see their father read are less likely to become readers.”
Initially, the program targeted children in rural communities outside Fort McMurray, where the club has not been particularly involved in projects due to the remoteness of some of the communities.
A challenge that the club had to overcome was the suspicions of community members about outsiders initiating a program for their community. Some though it might be “like a record or book club—free at first, but then they would have to pay,” Julianne says.
Another reason they started in the rural communities is that it was easier to obtain funding for programs there. The plan was to eventually include children living in Fort McMurray, but the club “didn’t want to start until we had funds in place for five years.”
Funding from Syncrude allowed program to expand
This happened in 2012, when Syncrude Canada—having heard about the success of the program—signed on as the major sponsor. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and other companies operating in the region also provide financial support.
There are currently 2,346 children who receive a book each month. Another 2,795 have “graduated” from the program on their fifth birthday.
The books are packaged in Tennessee and trucked to Canada to be distributed by mail to children whose parents have signed them up for the program.
Parents learn about the program from information that the club has placed throughout the community at drop-in centres for young children, at the library and at daycares. “We also promote it at special events and with brochures. There is a great website https://imaginationlibrary.com/ that parents can look at and where they can sign up their children.” Julianne says.
Julianne is one of two Canadians who were invited to be part of the committee, which chooses books for the Imagination Library. She says that the books are selected with care. “They are good quality books which are age appropriate. They include concepts to which children should be exposed,” she says.
Feedback from parents and teachers has been positive. “The parents love it. Their kids love it. They love being read to,” she says.
“Teachers tell us it makes a difference when children who have been exposed to books arrive at school. Kids who have been read to at home are more successful.”
The Forbes article says that “repeated studies by the foundation have shown that Parton’s efforts are helping to develop children’s vocabularies and early-school readiness.”