Imagination Library needs your help

For 18 years, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library has been sending books to kids in Bay and Arenac counties. The books help children develop literacy, social-emotional skills, and more

Now, the program needs your help.

Since January 2005, nearly 1 million books have been mailed to 15,000 children in Bay and Arenac counties. The books arrive every month for kids between birth and age 5, creating a 60-book library before a child starts kindergarten.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library covers logistical expenses such as marketing, chooses the books, and allows local programs to buy the books at a discounted price.

The remaining expenses  – which come to about $7,200 per month in Bay and Arenac counties – come from local communities.

For years, the team at the Bay-Arenac ISD has met expenses by applying for grants and accepting donations from individuals and businesses. Over time, the local organization has raised about $1.6 million for the program.

That money went a long way. It costs about $30 per year per child in the program, which is a bargain.

"You couldn't get 12 high-quality children's books delivered for $30 a year," says Gretchen Wagner, Early Childhood Education Director for the Bay-Arenac ISD.

Despite the value, the program may not have the funds to continue much longer. Right now, the Imagination Library has funds to continue through June. To keep going after that June, the organization needs help.

"There are some concerns about sustainability," says Rich VanTol, who coordinates early childhood education programs through the Bay-Arenac ISD

State money for the program dried up in 2010. At this point, the local program is still spending some of the state money awarded before 2010, but there's no way to replace those grants.

An annual donation campaign netted about $15,000 in 2022. That's enough for about two months of the program. When added to the already-secured grant money, organizers say they have enough to sustain the program through June.

"We just don't have the funding," to continue after June, says Jill Bialek, the Administrative Assistant who has coordinated the local program since its inception.

At the same time, the need for the program is significant, says Niki Napolitano, Assistant Director for Early Education at the Bay-Arenac ISD. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the education system, Michigan kids were behind on reading when compared to other states.

At the same time, studies show that much of our brain development happens before the age of 5, Napolitano says. 

"The Imagination Library is a key component to addressing those needs," Napolitano says. 

When adults read to children, the children develop skills in cognition and communication. Reading strengthens a child's social-emotional skills. Without those skills, children can't move forward in the K-12 education system.

The final chapter of the Imagination Library isn't yet written.

Napolitano says a Friends of the Imagination Library was established and is working to secure 501C3 status, which would give the organization access to new sources of funding.

They've also established the Imagination Library Designated Fund at the Bay Area Community Foundation that they hope will keep it going. The Bay-Arenac ISD Board of Education approved a one-time allocation of $15,000 for the program.

Volunteers accepted donations at summer concerts in the park. The Imagination Library also received some of the proceeds from the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational.

All that fundraising takes time, though.

"Is that something that we can do long term? Is that sustainable? I don't know," Napolitano says.

What they need now is donations. Wagner says the best way to help is to donate to the Bay Area Community Foundation fund. If that fund reaches $1.8 million, the annual interest should support the program. Right now, there's about $300,000 in the fund.

"We have a ways to go," Wagner says. 

Wagner adds that the Dolly Parton Imagination Library prohibits organizers from directly asking recipients to donate to the fund. They also can't ask families to meet income guidelines in order to receive the books. 

There are two ways to help the program now.

You can click here to donate to the Imagination Library Designated Fund at the Bay Area Community Foundation.

You also can mail donations to the Friends of Imagination Library Bay and Arenac Counties at PO Box 1522, Bay City, MI 48706.

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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at