A charitable literacy foundation run by country music legend Dolly Parton is set to begin mailing books monthly -- at no cost -- to up to 10,000 aboriginal children across Manitoba.
The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is to announce today in Winnipeg a program that will ship books monthly for children from birth to age five on 55 Manitoba First Nations. Its goal is to eventually include all 63 Manitoba First Nations.
The announcement follows nearly five years of planning and organization by Parton's foundation and Manitoba representatives. In the last two years alone, the president of Parton's foundation has travelled to Winnipeg nine times to co-ordinate local efforts. Manitoba's leader in the program is early child development worker Karen Davis of Ebb and Flow First Nation.
In 2009, Davis opened Manitoba's first Dolly Parton Imagination Library in the city of Dauphin and the RM of Dauphin. She later started Imagination Libraries in 15 Manitoba First Nations, always saying her goal was to put the child-literacy program in every Manitoba native community.
'I want every child in a First Nation to start school with the enthusiasm where they can say, I can read. I know how to hold a book. My parents read to me '
Earlier this year, Davis, an Ojbiwa, was honoured for her work with a Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Governor General. She returned the medal to protest the Harper government's policies toward aboriginals.
"I want every child in a First Nation to start school with the enthusiasm where they can say, 'I can read. I know how to hold a book. My parents read to me,' " Davis said when asked about her hopes for the program.
"I just want every kid to walk up to the teacher and say, 'I love to read,' and not go to the library and pick up a book and hold it upside down. That would break my heart."
Today's announcement coincides with national Raise-a-Reader Day.
The first book newborns receive from the Imagination Library is The Little Engine That Could, with a thank-you letter to the parents from the country music singer. The last book, when the child turns five, is Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come. That book contains another letter from Parton, but addressed to the child. The program will be customized to include aboriginal culture in many of the books.
Parton started the charitable foundation in honour of her parents, who never learned to read or write. Her foundation now mails books to 700,000 children every month in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, based in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., said the Manitoba project isn't the organization's biggest, but it has been the most complex to set up, partly because there has been no federal or provincial assistance.
Why launch such a large program in Manitoba? Dotson credited Davis. "She's been a firecracker for us for a long time," he said, recalling how she walked into his Tennessee office one day and said she wanted to start the program in Manitoba. Davis was in Nashville, Tenn., at the time to see aboriginal hockey player Jordin Tootoo play for the Nashville Predators of the NHL.
"Karen's a special person and you really build things around special people," said Dotson, scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg Tuesday night. He said Davis volunteered tremendous amounts of time and energy for the program and in recent months has been working for the foundation on contract.
Davis has been a tireless fundraiser and has commitments for about $700,000 so far. The biggest contributor is the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, which has put up $150,000. The Frontier School Division, with a dozen schools in First Nations communities, is putting up nearly $90,000. The Winnipeg Foundation has committed about $40,000.
The Dollywood Foundation covers staffing and travel and co-ordinates shipments from a database. It is able to purchase titles at huge discounts in its agreement with Penguin Books because it buys in such huge volumes.
About $250,000 is still needed to sign up the last eight Manitoba First Nations for the program, including Peguis, Nelson House, Sandy Bay, Long Plain, Sioux Valley, Lake St. Martin, Chemawawin, and Opaskwayak. Davis said she is in discussions with a major financial institution to help with the cost, but nothing is definite yet.
The program will ship books as far north as Sayisi Dene First Nation at Tadoule Lake, reachable only by plane, dog team, snowmobile or canoe. The Imagination Library seemed like a solution, said Davis, because "everyone gets mail some way, somehow."
"We don't have libraries, and Northern Stores don't sell books. We have very few resources that focus on the child's early years," she said.
She said the program's aim is also about involving parents in their child's education and not just leaving it to schools. Getting parents to read to their children is a big step. "I want parents to embrace these little minds and to know that from the start to age five is a crucial time in the children's lives," she said.
The Imagination Library ships about 200,000 books a month within Parton's home state of Tennessee, where local and state governments provide much of the funding. It also has a large program in Detroit, Mich., totalling 32,000 books per month. Its largest program outside the U.S. is near Yorkshire, England, where 14,000 books a month are shipped.
Parton will address the Manitoba program in a taped video to be played at today's news conference.
Davis, who has met Parton twice, once in Winnipeg and once in Nashville, said the retail value of the books to 55 First Nations over five years is about $10 million.