DAUPHIN -- To understand how Karen Davis got introduced as "that firecracker from Dauphin" to country music legend Dolly Parton recently, well, you have to go back a bit.
Davis has just launched Manitoba's first Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that mails a new book to every child in Dauphin every month from birth to age 5 -- free of charge.
But it all started because Davis is a big fan of the Nashville Predators hockey team and visits the Tennessee city up to three times a year to see them play.
OK, back it up a bit more. Actually, she's a big fan of Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk to play in the National Hockey League, who plays for the Nashville Predators. Davis is Ojibwa, born and raised on Ebb and Flow First Nation.
OK, back it up just a bit more. She first got to be friends with Rose Tootoo, Jordin's mom, while doing volunteer work in Brandon when Jordin was playing junior hockey for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
That's how she got to know Jordin, how she came to regularly visit Nashville, and how she wound up nervously wringing her hands in the office of David Dotson, executive director of Dollywood Foundation, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
The sum of those events will arrive soon when the first wave of books from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is mailed to nearly 200 kids in Dauphin.
It's free to the kids and their families but Davis certainly had to work to get it. She has spoken to dozens of groups promoting the program. She's still making presentations around the province, speaking in Selkirk on Friday. Flin Flon is expected to start a similar program soon.
Davis has also raised more than $30,000 of the $45,000 needed to pay mail costs for the books over five years. Donors have included the Dauphin Friendship Centre, South Parkland Healthy Child Coalition, the Dauphin Rotary Club, of which Davis is a member, and Dauphin businessman Myles Haverluck.
Davis spearheaded the imagination library through Dauphin Friendship Centre, an aboriginal organization, but the Dolly Parton program is open to everyone in Dauphin and the RM of Dauphin. The community in the Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette riding has the fourth-lowest individual income, and the seventh-lowest average family income, among all Canadian ridings.
Of 163 kids signed up in the first two weeks, about a third are aboriginal, Davis said. She's beating the bushes getting word out to the other 250 eligible kids.
For young mother Crystal Amoyette, whose father is Métis, the program seems too good to be true. "I love to read but we didn't read a lot as kids. We didn't have our own books," said Amoyette, who has two children in the program.
Davis has the humble beginnings that someone like Dolly Parton could appreciate. At Ebb and Flow First Nation, Davis's mom is the postmistress and her dad ran a taxi service, charging a flat $5 fee to go anywhere on the reserve, before he passed away in 2006.
Parton's parents were essentially illiterate. They once told their famous daughter that of all the things she'd accomplished in her music and acting careers, they were most proud of her program to help children learn to read.
The books are all top-line, retailing at $19.95 to $24.95. At those prices, the program is worth more than $500,000 to the community over five years, said Davis. However, the Dollywood Foundation purchases wholesale and negotiates discounts on everything from books to mailing costs, because it moves such huge volumes.
The imagination library has been in Canada since 2006 when it partnered with Invest in Kids in Toronto. The entire Yukon is enrolled through its government, and all 11 First Nations in Nova Scotia are signed up.
Ultimately, Davis's goal is to put the program into every First Nation and Métis community in Manitoba, especially remote communities with no access to libraries. "Growing up on Ebb and Flow First Nation, I have a good understanding of the challenges families face," said Davis, who has worked for several social service agencies.
She just might do it. Hence, Dollywood director David Dotson's introduction of Davis as "that firecracker from Dauphin," when Davis was a backstage guest at Parton's Winnipeg concert in November.
And what did she and Dolly talk about?
"She just said, 'Thank-you so much for helping families. And thanks to the good people of Dauphin for jumping on board.'"
And Davis? "I told her how proud I was to be part of her dream for children."
Davis encourages groups interested in the program to contact her at email@example.com