INDIANAPOLIS — Imagination Library, a program started by singer and actress Dolly Parton more than 25 years ago, helps put books into the hands of millions of kids around the U.S.
It doesn't cost families a dime.
Right now, not many Hoosier kids have access to the program, but with leaders on both sides of the aisle taking action during the legislative session, that may soon allow Imagination Library to expand around the state.
Local chapters say it can make a big difference in helping kids learn to read and succeed in school.
Inside Susan Crisafulli's office at Franklin College, a pile of Imagination Library books sits close by.
"We are just thrilled with the number of kids we've been able to have an impact on," said Crisafulli, executive director of Imagination Library of Johnson County.
Crisafulli helped to start the Johnson County chapter back in 2017. Her own kids were enrolled in getting Imagination Library books in Tennessee, but when they moved, they couldn't find a program nearby.
Years later, she said she and her college students were working with kids at a local elementary school when she saw the impact Imagination Library could have on kids here in central Indiana.
"We were there to help kids improve their literacy skills, the kids who were struggling the most, and the more I talked to the kids who were struggling, the more it was clear they didn't have access to books at home. So I knew about Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, it was in the back of mind to get it started sometime and it felt like it needed to be then," Crisafulli said.
Over the past five years, she and her fellow volunteers have grown the Johnson County chapter from 300 to 3,000 children getting books every month.
Parton created Imagination Library in 1995 as a way to get books into the hands of kids from birth until they turn five years old, and at no cost to families. There are no income requirements to participate.
"Everything is tailored to the child's growth and development to set them up for success as they enter kindergarten," Crisafulli said. "And studies show that the Imagination Library has an impact beyond just kindergarten, that the kids enrolled in the program do better academically into later grades, too."
Imagination Library covers the majority of the cost. Local chapters, like the one in Johnson County, help raise money to cover the remaining expenses.
Nationwide, 1 in 10 kids get the monthly books. Here in Indiana, the program isn't widespread.
"It's heartbreaking when a child moves to another place and they don't have a program there. Sometimes parents will contact us and say, 'Oh, we just loved Imagination Library, what do we have to do to stay enrolled?' Like Morgan County, for example, doesn't have one, our next door neighbor," Crisafulli said. “When we don’t have a statewide program and kids move from one place to another and they lose that sense of joy and excitement from books coming in the mail, it’s really heartbreaking. So we would love and really welcome a statewide program to enable all Hoosier children to be able to be a part of this program."
A statewide program for Indiana may soon be possible.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced earlier this month that among his budget priorities for the upcoming legislative session are plans to make Imagination Library available statewide.
Neighboring states like Kentucky have already passed similar legislation, giving local chapters like the one in Louisville a wider reach.
"And so, with that came financial support in the form of covering half the cost of every book that's mailed out. That has been huge in terms of allowing us to expand and get more books in the hands of kids," said Maria Gurren, executive director of Imagination Library of Louisville.
A Senate bill has already been filed that would bring Imagination Library into all 92 counties in Indiana, with the state picking up half the costs that local chapters are currently paying.
“I’m super excited to hear Indiana is considering a statewide program. I know for us, when that legislation was passed here it was absolutely a gamechanger,” Gurren said.
Crisafulli said she's hopeful lawmakers get behind this and turn this legislation into law so they can get more kids reading.
"Who can disagree with getting books to children?" Crisafulli asked.
You can find out here if there's currently an Imagination Library program in your area. Click here if you're interested in starting an Imagination Library program near you.