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Gov. Steve Bullock reads to a group of kids from the Children's Center preschool during an event at MCT Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday to launch Imagination Library in Missoula County. The organization mails a free book monthly to enrolled children from birth to age five.

Gov. Steve Bullock is used to drawing a crowd wherever he goes, but a group of 4-year-olds at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday afternoon might have been his most rapt audience yet.

Bullock was in town to help United Way of Missoula County launch Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, where he and several other officials, including Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle, read to kids.

Founded by Parton in 1995, Imagination Library is an early years book gifting program that allows kids to get a free, age-appropriate, brand-new book every month from the day they’re born until age 5.

“So by the time they start kindergarten, they have a home library of 60 books,” explained United Way of Missoula County CEO Susan Hay Patrick. “They are good quality books like 'Goodnight Moon,' 'Spot Goes to the Library' and 'Kindergarten, Here I Come!' is the last one. They aren’t just Disney princess books, as one of my co-workers put it. The books have pictures and age-appropriate vocabulary. They nurture a love of reading at a very early age and that serves them for the rest of their lives.”

Parents can sign up their children either electronically at or via a paper form.

“It’s available for everyone,” Hay Patrick said. “It doesn’t matter your family income. We want to encourage kids from families at all levels to read and participate. There is no stigma attached.”

The books are free through the Dollywood Foundation, but somebody has to step up and pay for postage and administrative costs, Hay Patrick explained. Her organization has worked with several community sponsors to provide program application forms at doctor’s offices, the newborn center at Community Medical Center and other places where families with young children congregate.

The cost of the program is $2.08 per book every month for shipping. First Security Bank is the lead sponsor for the shipping costs, and Sentinel Kiwanis, First Interstate Bank, the Best Beginnings Council and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Montana have provided support as well.

“We have no cap on the number of people who can enroll, but we’ve estimated that by the end of the first year we will reach 20 percent of the target population,” Hay Patrick said. “We’re going to start small. We are limited only by our ability to raise funds for it. It really does align with our goal of helping kids stay and succeed in school.”

Hay Patrick reminded the crowd Tuesday that investing in early childhood education pays dividends for society later in life.

“Independent research has shown that participation in Imagination Library improves early childhood literacy and results in higher scores on tests for early literacy,” Hay Patrick said. “These goals are consistent with those of Graduation Matters Missoula, a communitywide effort in which United Way has been involved since 2011.”

A fun moment Tuesday came when Hay Patrick realized she was dressed in red and black, very similar to how Parton was dressed in a poster for the event.

“I don’t normally dress like Dolly Parton, but I just realized it,” she said as the audience chuckled. “Dolly grew up in abject poverty in Tennessee, as many of you know, but she always believed the world of books opened up life for her. She credits learning to read with all her success in life, and the program is now in 1,600 communities in the U.S.”

Mayor John Engen spoke at the event, telling the crowd that early reading is important for future job success as well as family bonding, and the Whizpops provided musical entertainment.

Bullock told the crowd that the amount of learning kids get from the time they are born until age 5 sets them up for success later in life.

“I applaud you for recognizing how important it is that we get our youngest learners off on the right foot from the start,” he said. “Recognizing the creativity and the engagement and expansion of the mind, so we can start right at the time a child is born all the way until a child gets into the hands of the public school system. It makes a significant difference. And we do that one child at a time.”

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