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Free Books Program Changes Children

WASHINGTON — Nicholas Leathers, a 24-year-old records examiner analyst, recently sat in the children’s section of a Washington public library reading to his 2-year-old cousin, Riley. On its face, nothing particularly significant.

After all, for many kids, the library is a place to go find their favorite book.

Leathers’ and Riley’s reading session, however, is the result of a unique collaboration that stretches from Riley’s home to the U.S. Postal Service to the city’s library system to D.C. city government all the way back to, of all people, country singer Dolly Parton.

Parton, who grew up poor as the fourth of 12 children in tiny Locust Ridge, Tenn., created Imagination Library, which sends millions of books to children in U.S. cities such as Washington and to children in Canada, Great Britain and Australia.

The D.C. Public Library, in conjunction by city Council member Charles Allen, tapped into the program in 2016 and created Books from Birth, which provides children up to five free books that are mailed to their homes, one each month.

Currently, more than 27,000 Washington families are registered with the public library, which has sent out 431,060 books since the program’s inception, said Michael Linder, who coordinates the program for the library.

Another 5,605 children have “graduated” from the program after turning age 6, Linder said.  The program is an effort an effort to close the literacy gap in Wards 1, 5, 7 and 8, he said.

About 80 percent of the families in those areas are currently enrolled in the program, he said.

Leathers’ cousin is part of the program, which explained why the two of them were in the library that day. Almost since birth, Leathers said, Riley has been receiving monthly deliveries from Books from Birth that her parents read to her.

“She’s gotten about 14 books since she signed up,” Leathers said. “Now she has a small library in her room.”

He said he has seen the effect early reading can have on children through its impact on his cousin.

“My cousin is 2 years old, but she can count and knows her ABCs, because we’ve been reading these books to her,” he said. “She goes to read now when all the other kids look for toys.”

Those words are good news to Allen, who started the program in D.C.

“As a lawmaker … there are very few things that we pass that we can feel an impact immediately, and we can also feel every single day,” Allen said. “The number of families who talk about this program, and that realize that this has such a huge impact on early childhood literacy, it feels good that as a lawmaker you can make a difference.”

Stay-at-home mom Kia Daniels said the Books from Birth program has certainly benefitted her 18-month-old son, Talid, who’s been receiving the books since birth.

“Reading has been a part of my son’s life since before he was born,” said Daniels, who read to her child while he was in the womb. “It opens your child to great opportunities.

“Even though he’s so young, he knows the books are for him, and he’s excited every time he gets a new one.” she said.

Daniels said beause of the program, her family now travels from their home in Ward 8 in southeast Washington to the Benning (Dorothy I. Height) Neighborhood Library every Wednesday to hear books read aloud by a librarian to children.

“Jane at Benning is great,” she said. “She makes every child feel like they are a part of the program, and she’s very interactive with the kids.”

The D.C. library system purchases the books it sends to families from Parton’s Dollywood Foundation for $2.10 per book.

“We’re using the economies of scale to allow local partners like D.C. Public Library to participate and get books into the hands of families with young children at a scale they would never be able to do, and never be able to afford otherwise,” said Jeff Conyers, the executive director of the Dollywood Foundation.

Linder said the city has enough money to continue to buy books for children.

Meanwhile, Parton was honored by the Library of Congress in Washington in February after her organization donated its 100 millionth book.

Parton, an actor, author and one of the most celebrated artists in country music history, read and sang from a book about her childhood to children gathered for the program.

“We never thought it would be this big,” Parton said.

To register to receive free books, go to https://www.dclibrary.org/freebooks.

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