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Become a Reading Buddy in Erie: Danny Jones

 Recently, the Imagination Library in Erie County celebrated several key milestones. As of November, more than 100,000 books have been mailed out to 10,000-plus children in our community since July 2013. Imagine the excited children waiting for the mail to arrive and then the smiles when they receive their monthly book. For many children, these are the first brand-new children's books in their homes.


If you have not heard about the Imagination Library, it's a free book program that was founded in 1996 by Dolly Parton to promote early childhood literacy. It provides a "free" book for any children living in a designated geographic area (for us, it's Erie County) from birth to their fifth birthday.


These are high-quality books that are reviewed and selected annually by a blue-ribbon panel of nationally recognized early childhood literacy experts. United Way of Erie County entered into an agreement with the Dollywood Foundation in 2013 to be the agent for the Imagination Library in Erie County. As such, United Way raises money for this program in our community, which is free to the children and their families.


On Nov. 6, in addition to celebrating breaking the 100,000th-book and 10,000-children milestones, United Way, along with the Junior League of Erie, officially opened the first Imagination Library Reading Nook that is housed at the John F. Kennedy Center, 2021 E. 20th St. This Reading Nook was generously funded by local resident Nan Held, and the project was directed by the Junior League. Local painter Heather Cash created a whimsical cabin porch scene in an outdoor setting, complete with a stream, mountains, wildlife and a train.


The intent of this first Imagination Library Reading Nook is to provide a fun, imaginative and safe place for parents and caregivers to read with their children. While getting the books into young hands is a big step in focusing on early childhood literacy, the biggest impact occurs when adults read to and with children. Having a special place to sit and read a book encourages families to get away from the hustle and bustle of the day to spend quality time together.
There is extensive research around the impact reading has on brain development in infants and young children. Aside from making sure children are healthy and safe, there is nothing more important to preparing a child for kindergarten, and success in school and beyond, than reading to them from the time they are born. While we celebrate the milestones with the Imagination Library in our community, we cannot lose sight that more than half of the children in Erie County enter kindergarten lacking proper literacy skills, which is the foundation for learning.


That's why United Way, under the leadership of Julie Wollman, president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, created a companion initiative to the Imagination Library called the Reading Buddies program. This initiative trains volunteers to work with parents, caregivers or any adult who wants to learn best practices in how to read with a young child.


Reading Buddies events are held throughout the city and county with partners that agree to host an event, such as community centers, library branches, etc. Child care is provided as well as refreshments for children and adults, and a drawing for a gift card is held at the end of the adult training.


Recently, United Way teamed up with the Erie Playhouse's Youtheatre and Blasco Library to host a special Reading Buddies event with a "Sleepy Hollow" theme. Actors from the Youtheatre's "Sleepy Hollow" production entertained the children while the adults met with the Reading Buddies volunteers. Afterward, a short musical performance was held, followed by lunch for everyone. As part of its contribution, the Erie Playhouse donated free tickets to all of the families who participated.


Since September 2013, 23 Reading Buddies events have been held throughout Erie County. As important as getting books into the hands of children is the engagement of adults in reading with their children.


If you are in the area of the JFK Center, stop in and take a look at the first Imagination Library Reading Nook. With support from other generous Erie residents, United Way plans to create Reading Nooks throughout the community. Imagine if all the children in Erie developed an early love of reading and were prepared for kindergarten, eager to learn. That is our hope for the next generation and beyond.


DANNY JONES, director of student services for the Erie School District, is chairman of the Education Impact Council for United Way of Erie County.
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