LUMBERTON — On Tuesday, Sandra Oliver received a text from an excited administrative assistant at the Robeson County United Way headquarters.
“The books are here, the books are here,” read the text from Francis Miller to Oliver, the organization’s executive director, who smiles as she talks about how much the two have been anticipating the first shipment of children’s literature from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
“We are so excited,” Oliver said. “I’ve been excited about it and I think the community has been excited too. It took us a whole year to get it put together and do it because it is a huge process.”
Funding for the program, which was established in 1996 by country singer Dolly Parton and provides children aged 5 and younger with a monthly free book, is supported by the United Way’s event Dancing with the Robeson County Stars — an event that was so successful a second one has been planned for 2013. The co-chair of the inaugural Dancing with the Robeson County Stars event held in March, Lumberton’s Deputy City Manager Dixon Ivey, said the dancing was the easy part.
“Raising the money was the hard part, getting people to contribute, especially in this economy,” he said.
Still, Ivey says the fund-raising was well worth the effort.
“I think it’s probably one of the most important programs that’s occurred in Robeson County involving children,” he said. “You want children to be able to read and make a better life for themselves.”
Ivey’s 4-year-old grandson, Ben Gavasci, was one of 733 children who received this month’s book, “The Little Engine that Could.” On Thursday, Ben’s granddad was reading to him from the book.
Oliver said she expects that there are 11,000 children in the county who could benefit from the program, which she hopes will help to instill a love for the written word in young children who might otherwise never hold a book in their hands — and help the county lower one of the highest illiteracy rates in North Carolina.
“We talk to teachers in the school system who say they have children in their classrooms that never had a book, magazine or newspaper in their home,” she said. “… We want them to learn to love to read because if you don’t learn to appreciate books and learn to read as a young person, you won’t do it as an adult.”
Any child, rich, poor or in between, can get free books. Oliver hopes families who receive the service and can afford to contribute will consider sponsoring a child. The cost is $30 to sponsor a child for a year.
“We spend a lot of time teaching our children how to play ball and how to ride a bicycle — we have to put that much emphasis on teaching them how to read,” Oliver said. “We are the only people that can make a difference for our children, so we have to come together and do it.”