The Imagination Library puts books in the hands of Grant County preschoolers whose parents promise to read to them.
by Harry Williamson
"Children without words are licked before they start. Most of them have never seen their parents read a book or a magazine . . ."
— Peter Jennison, historian and novelist
"You may have tangible wealth untold
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be
I had a mother who read to me."
— Strickland Gillilan, poet
Gather 'round, gather 'round!
Okay, here's the deal. You get a book in the mail every month for 60 months, absolutely free. That's it. You don't have to pay a penny.
You've got two kids? Okay, we'll double the offer.
Not only that, we'll pretty much guarantee your kids will do better in school, and be more fulfilled in their future lives.
What do you do have to do?
Simple. Grab a pillow or two, settle in, pick up that book, and read it aloud to your children.
Now, sign up right over here.
A couple of retired Minnesota schoolteachers and grandparents, Barbara and Loren Nelson definitely don't look like flimflammers. But at first blush their Imagination Library can seem almost too good to be true.
Some of the free books given to local children are spread out in front of Loren and Barbara Nelson, who started The Imagination Library of Grant County. (Photo by Harry Williamson)
"We've had people say that we're probably going to send the books free for a few months, and then start charging them," Barbara says. "And we answer, 'No we won't, ever. There is never any charge. All you have to do is promise to read to your children, and let us know your new address if you move. That's all there is.'"
Approximately a year ago the Nelsons started their Imagination Library of Grant County, Inc. It was New Mexico's first locally sponsored affiliate of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which the country singer began in 1995 in her home Sevier County, Tenn. In 2000 Parton's program was made available to any community that was willing to support it locally. Now more than 667,000 books are shipped from Tennessee each month to more than 1,500 communities in all 50 states, Canada, Australia and the UK. Online registration for the program, whose motto is, "Dream more, Learn more, Care more, Be more," doubled in 2011 alone.
Parton says the Imagination Library was not started as a charity or a social service. She explains, "It is simply a gift to all of the preschoolers in a community."
How an Imagination Library was created in Grant County is similar to how many worthwhile programs get started here — motivated people retire to the area.
Loren Nelson says he first visited Silver City when it was on the route of a mountain bike trip he and a couple of friends made along the Continental Divide, from the Canadian border to Antelope Wells, NM.
Johnny Montenegro and his wife Rita of Santa Clara get some snuggle time reading to their children, Lucy, age four, and Joseph, age two. The family receives books from the Imagination Library. (Photo by Harry Williamson)
"When we decided to find a place to spend January, I said we have to take a look at Silver City," he says. "So we arrived in town on a Thursday, and bought a house on Monday when we were leaving to go back to Minnesota."
That was 10 years ago, and the Nelsons, who describe themselves as the type of people "who get into things headfirst," have been busy ever since. Loren was one of the people who helped start the Volunteer Center of Grant County, and he works with several other groups, including being on the board of Literacy Link-Leamos (see "Getting the Word," August 2011) in Silver City. Barbara had spent a lot of her time volunteering, especially reading — sometimes accompanied by her singing and guitar playing — at Literacy Link, county schools and Head Start programs.
"With our own three children, five grandchildren and our students, we've always realized the value and necessity of reading to children," Barbara says.
So when they discovered in the fall of 2010 that New Mexico had no private Imagination Library affiliates, they decided to take a little money from their own savings and start one. Since they were using their own funds — and since "retired teachers do not have any depth of pocket," as Barbara puts it — they began with children under the age of three living in the four mining-district zip codes.
Their first mailing of 100 fundraising letters resulted in an almost unheard-of 46% percent, compared to the average return of 2%-4%.
"I think we got the good response because we hit on a need. That's the only reason I can think of," Loren says.
"And, well, we sent it to a lot of people who like us," Barbara adds. "We got several responses from people that said they really admired what we were doing, and wished they could do it if they weren't employed or something like that."
They received sufficient money to expand to four- and five-year-old children. Later, after receiving a small United Way grant, the program began servicing all of the Grant County zip codes except for those in Silver City.
The Nelsons started out with seven children and are now up 350, providing almost 3,000 books to more than half of the children in rural Grant County. Recipients include 30 five-year-olds who have "graduated," receiving their final book, Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! They've also sent books to a one-day-old and a two-day-old child.
"A full two-thirds of the children in Santa Clara, and virtually all of the children in Mimbres Valley are now receiving these free books," Loren says.
Barbara says she works monthly with the rural post offices, correcting addresses and making sure the children are getting their books.
"We couldn't do it without the postal employees," she adds. "They happily tell us about the excited children, parents and grandparents who pick up their books each month. With their help we've had only four undeliverable books since we began."
It will cost approximately $10,000 for all of the children who are currently registered to receive books in 2012. The county communities that are now included are Arenas Valley, Bayard, Buckhorn, Cliff, Faywood, Gila, Hanover, Hachita, Hurley, Mimbres, Mule Creek, Pinos Altos, Santa Clara, Redrock and Tyrone.
The Nelsons estimate another $6,000 to $8,000 would be needed to rovide books for newborns in Silver City in 2012, with the hope being to dd one-year-olds the following year, and then just go a year at a time up to the five-year-olds. According to the 2010 census, Silver City's 88061 zip code covers between 1,000 and 1,200 children under the age of five.
Late last year the Nelsons sent out their second fund-raising letter, this time to 200 people and businesses, along with another grant request to United Way.
"If we get that grant we'd definitely be able to open it up to newborns in Silver City," Loren says. "We also asked another foundation for $10,000 last October and haven't heard back yet. If we get that we would probably open it up carte blanche for all the kids in Silver City under the age of five."
The Nelsons have also started a "sponsor a child" program where people can donate $30 for a year's worth of 12 books, or $150, which provides books for one child from birth to age five.
"We have one person who is giving a child a year of reading for each of her six relatives as a Christmas present," Barbara says. "We are also starting to get people who give us three-year pledges, which is really helpful because it allows us to anticipate where we will be."
With their 501(c)3 nonprofit certification now in hand, the Nelsons in the New Year will also be establishing their board. Becky Nell Young is the board's first member, and three others have expressed an interest in joining.
The Nelsons' two responsibilities as program sponsors — or "local champions," as they're referred to by The Imagination Library — are to raise the funds and sign up families who would like to receive the books. They do a lot of this signing up at local festivals and other public events, along with setting up their little table and banner at some area retailers.
"We just sit there and sign them up," Barbara says. "Some days we might get zero or we might get 20."
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