BELDING,Mich.(WZZM) -- Hundreds of West Michigan children are becoming better readers thanks to a national program, The Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
The program sends books to the kids' homes each month until they turn 5-years-old. Fay Renteria of Belding has two children, Gabriella and Miguel, who've taken part in the program. Renteria can't say enough good things about the experience.
"At first, I thought there had to be some type of gimmick to it. I didn't see how they could send so many free books to people," she says. "But, the books just keep coming in the mail every month."
"There were approximately 40 children that received books in thefirst month. Now we are up to over 1,500 children every month getting books. Approximately 1,920 received them just this year," said Cheryl Granzo, director of the early childhood program for The Ionia County Intermediate School District.
The Ionia County ISD has championed the Imagination Library Program for students in the district since 2007 when a grant opportunity that would make it available to students dissolved. Granzo says even though there is "never a one-to-one relationship between a person's money and a particular child" it does cost $27 per year for a child to be in the program.
"It breaks down to $2.50 per book, which basically pays for shipping," said Granzo.
So, if reading is truly the key to success, children like Gabriella and Miguel are destined to have bright futures ahead of them.
"They love books, yes. When she gets it she is like excited and we have to read it right now. We have to stop what we are doing and read that book," said Renteria. "Rhyming books are their favorites. They love to rhyme different words, colors, shapes, sizes. Also, with the books they are able to describe things in more detail. It helps to describe things as if someone has never seen that object before. They use that also in their writing."
Dana Lepien, a speech pathologist for the ISD's Early Intervention Program is very familiar with the Imagination Library. Her students, as well as her own children, have participated in it. She firmly believes books have changed these children's lives for the better.
"In lots and lots of different ways: the rhythm of reading teaches them conversation and intonation patterns and how sentences are formed," she said. "Vocabulary is extremely rich in books. It teaches the excitement for learning new things and for reading. I work with children under three that have speech and language delays and I talked to those parents about how important reading is and how it can promote language development."
Lepien believes books are often undervalued by people who do not have exposure to them.
"Absolutely, there is nothing better than a book," said Lepien.
Parents who participate in the program tend to agree. Jessica Rowland is one of them.
"I have a 5-year old, Cassidy, who received the books. I also have a foster son who is currently getting them right now. He is 7 months. I think the books coming in the mail has really helped me and my husband. We have never really been readers, but once we started getting the books, we knew if we wanted her to be a reader and succeed in school better than we did we would need to be able to read those books to her," said Rowland. "It helped us be able to have a book to read to her every night. We would take the book we got that month and read it to her every night that month and the next month we would switch over to the next book. That has really helped her."
The program has helped Rowland and her husband as well.
"Me and my husband both did not have jobs, so we would not have been able to afford to have those books to read to her every night," she said. "I personally feel if it weren't for the books coming in the mail and knowing that we read in this house, she wouldn't' read. "
For these families, the books have opened up a world of new characters, new stories and unlimited possibilities.
One of the biggest fundraisers for the Ionia ISD is a quilt raffle held each year. The theme of the quilts is based a popular book. This year it is "Good Night Moon."
"This really came about because there were some women in the community who saw the books and wanted to help with the program. This is the 4th year doing the raffle. We have 32 quilts to raffle in March, literacy month," said Granzo. "Last year was Dr. Seuss and it generated $6,000. What we are really hoping to do is capitalize on what Dolly aspires to, which is this is a gift from the community back to its youngest citizens."
December 7th the the ISD will host a quilters tea from 2pm-4pm. It will be the first chance to see all of the quilts in the same place.
For more information on how to bring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to your community visit the official website.