Literacy is a passion for Family Practice Physician Sylvia Simon, M.D. of Jefferson Regional Monticello Medical Clinic. She grew up knowing people who could not read, and as a physician she has seen patients who were, at best, functionally illiterate. Dr. Simon first became involved in childhood literacy programs during her residency in Wichita, Kansas, and she wanted to continue after joining Jefferson Regional Monticello Medical. That’s when she found Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
“The program I previously worked with was physician based, and provided a free book to each child when they came for a checkup,” Dr. Simon said. “That was great, but after their first birthday, many kids don’t go to the doctor all that often. With the Imagination Library, kids who are signed up receive a free book at home every month between the ages of birth and five years, regardless of their income. If they are signed up right after being born, that’s 60 books by their fifth birthday. The goal is to get kids excited about books and reading, so the more books they get, the better. Plus, the books are mailed to each child personally. When a child gets mail in his or her own name, it’s a big deal.”
The Imagination Library was developed by singer/songwriter Dolly Parton in honor of her father, who never learned to read. The Dollywood Foundation administers the program, which began in Tennessee in 1995 and has now expanded to every state in the U.S. as well as four other countries. According to Dr. Simon, the school districts benefit from the program as much as the children. “The Dollywood Foundation has data showing that it saves a minimum of $12 for every $1 spent – in some areas as much as $25 for every $1 – for the school system alone. That’s because these kids are in a much better place from a language and academic standpoint when they start school. Studies also show that when the Imagination Library is active for at least five years, standardized testing scores go up.”
In addition to the national assistance, which includes discounted books and postage, each participating community has to establish their own non-profit organization to manage the program locally. “After doing the research, I went to the partners in our group and said I think we should do this,” said Dr. Simon, “and all the doctors at the time – me and my husband, Timothy Simon, Michael Fakouri and Julia Nicholson, agreed to foot the bill for the start-up costs.” (Pediatrician James Atkins, M.D. has since joined the staff). She also says the program is usually handled by educators, and she has never heard of another medical facility establishing an affiliate.
Dr. Simon and her partners applied for a non-profit in 2017 and were approved in 2018.
They initially intended to only serve Drew County, but ended up covering the cost of four counties that did not have full coverage: Drew, Cleveland, Lincoln and Desha. In 2019, the doctors began raising money and shipping books.
Once a local affiliate is up and running, the Dollywood Foundation covers 50% of the program cost and the local community raises the other 50%. There is good support within the four counties, and several local businesses make donations. The state legislature voted last year to cover half of the community cost through a grant program, so now they only have to raise 25% of the cost for each county.
Today, all four counties supported by the Monticello physicians are up to 60% participation. “Right now, 641 children in Drew County are signed up for the program, with 246 who have graduated out,” said Dr. Simon. There are 180 kids participating in Cleveland County with 58 graduates, 311 children are active in Desha County with 115 graduates and 217 kids active in Lincoln County with 69 who have graduated out. “I’m very proud of those numbers,” said Dr. Simon.
Children can sign up for the Imagination Library at the clinic, and Drew Memorial hospital offers to sign up every child born there, just as Jefferson Regional does in Pine Bluff. Meanwhile, despite the growth of the program, Dr. Simon is still doing paperwork herself, entering information on newly-registered children so she can keep up with the progress being made. “I’m so grateful for all the support we’ve received. My partners continue to solicit donations and encourage families to sign up, and we still receive assistance from a number of businesses and civic organizations. We know this program changes children’s attitudes toward reading and education in general. If we can introduce books at an early age, school could be a completely different experience for them.”