The scene late Monday afternoon would have surely made Dolly Parton smile that smile.
Four-year-old Tallis Parkey, in his "Where the Wild Things Are" hoodie, climbed off his mom’s lap and led his little sister across the porch at the Parkey home on North Avenue.
He pulled out this month’s book titled, appropriately enough, “Run Wild,” and handed “Excellent Ed” to 2-year-old Luna.
The books brought to 150,000 the number mailed by Parton’s Imagination Library through United Way of Missoula County to children under age 5, a month less than five years after it was launched.
These days more than half the preschool-aged kids in Missoula and Mineral counties, some 3,100 in all, receive an age-appropriate book in the mail each month at no cost to their families.
“And they’re really good quality books too. They’re not just whatever’s cheapest to send out,” said Petrea Parkey, Tallis’ and Luna’s mother and a fourth-grade teacher at Paxson School.
She and her husband, Matt, got Tallis in on the ground floor and his library because of it is approaching 60 books. Petrea said she’d heard its praises sung while she was in education classes at the University of Montana. Tallis was born on Dec. 25, 2014. The United Way and First Security Bank launched the Parton program less than three weeks later, on Jan. 13, 2015, with the help of Mayor John Engen, Gov. Steve Bullock and local children's band the Whizpops.
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The first book to arrive for Tallis, as it does for all kids in the program? “The Little Engine That Could.”
In a few weeks, when he turns 5, he’ll receive his graduation book: “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come.”
Parton’s Dollywood Foundation established Imagination Library in 1995 in her hometown of Pigeon Ford, Tennessee. It spread across that state and now more than 1.4 million books are mailed each month throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
“Not everybody is a teacher and understands the importance of reading like the Parkey family, and that is one of the things that Imagination Library does, I think. It really benefits kids who don’t have a lot of books in the home,” said Susan Hay Patrick, chief executive officer of United Way’s Missoula office. “But this is for everybody.”
With seed money from First Security Bank, United Way handles enrollment and pays for postage, which Hay said runs about $75,000 a year. Starting Tuesday, Giving Tuesday, and throughout the holiday season, United Way is promoting on its website a campaign for $30 donations, which covers a book a month for one child for a year. Go to www.missoulaunitedway.org for details to donate and to enroll a preschooler.
“This is an easy investment for us,” said Scott Burke, president of First Security. “If you’re going to solve problems, you’ve got to start at the root, and having a book in a child’s hands makes a whole lot of sense. It gives them a step up. It gives them a step in the right direction.”
While the Missoula team distributes the majority of Imagination Library books in Montana, the program is catching on in other places. In western Montana, the Arlee Community Development Corp. in Lake County has an Imagination Library, as do the Friends of the Drummond Library and Friends of the Philipsburg Library in Granite County.