The Dolly Parton Imagination Library that will mail a book per month to every child under age five on Manitoba First Nations — 60 books by the time the child reaches kindergarten — will mark a sea change in those communities, say education experts.
"A lot of those homes have no books or magazines whatsoever now," said Jamie Wilson, chairman of the Healthy Child Advisory Committee.
The first books from the Imagination Library — unlike a real library, children get to keep the books — will start arriving in the mail within six weeks.
"That’s just huge. This is so positive," said Wilson, who is from Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Many of the books will also be culturally-specific to First Nations.
Dolly Parton addressed the audience in a two-minute taped video. David Dotson, president of Dollywood Foundation, attended the launch, joking that he holds the record for most times travelled between Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and Winnipeg — 10 times in the past two years.
Deal with 8 left-out First Nations close
Fifteen First Nations are already receiving books from the program. A launch was held Wednesday to add 40 more First Nations to the program. That leaves eight First Nations, many of them larger one like Peguis, still on the outside.
However, talks with potential new sponsors continued right up until yesterday’s official launch, and officials say a deal is close. A major financial institution, accounting firm, and CN Rail are in deep discussions about helping fund the final $250,000 needed.
About $700,000 has been raised so far to help pay for the books and mailing costs. Some current sponsors include banks RBC and CIBC, Hugh Munro Construction, and Grand Medicine Health Services.
The program is spearheaded by Karen Davis, an early child education worker from Ebb and Flow First Nation. She volunteered her time and efforts the past six years to raise support and especially funding for the program.
Chief Morris Shannacappo of Rolling River First Nation related to Wednesday’s launch his first encounter with Davis. He tapes all his conversations with officials in case he wants to listen to them later, he explained. When Davis stopped by his office, "she spoke for 34-and-a-half minutes. I spoke for half a minute. I said, ‘OK, I support you.’"
"Early childhood education is critical,’ said Adrienne Carriere, an instructor at University of Manitoba who oversees support for students arriving on campus from First Nations. Studies have shown that kids who are read to by their parents stay in school longer. Carriere believes the flood of books "will add another cultural component" to those First Nations.
Davis said the program will also include "parent engagement training" for training education representatives, who then go back to their reserves and teach parents about early child education. Davis said talks are also underway for Winnipeg School Division to become part of the Imagination Library by 2014.
The high school graduation rate is just 28 per cent among students in First Nations, versus over 80 per cent in the rest of the province.