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  • Education
  • 1996

The philanthropy of country-music singer Dolly Parton (much of it anonymous) has aimed mostly to help her neighbors in the middle South raise their level of education, and boost the economy of the region. She has provided college scholarships in her home county since the 1970s, and through her Dollywood Foundation offers incentives to reduce high-school dropout rates in the area.

Then in 1996, Parton launched an even earlier intervention: her Imagination Library. The goal was to capture young hearts and minds and teach children to love reading from infancy. The mechanism: allow any child to build his or her own collection of books by kindergarten, at no cost to the family. The program sends a child one book per month, every month, from birth until his or her fifth birthday. Parton began the Imagination Library in her home county of Sevier in east Tennessee, and explained in a 2006 interview with the Washington Post that she wanted to give children something that had been rare in her family. Her father couldn’t read, and “my mother was married when she was in the seventh grade, so a lot of my people didn’t get a chance to get an education. Imagination Library was born out of my need to try to help people, knowing what a handicap it was with a lot of my relatives.”

The program quickly became enormously popular, and Parton opened it beyond Tennessee in 2000, offering to replicate the library in any community willing to help support it financially. The service is now active in 1,600 locales, sending books to nearly 700,000 children every month. Every year now, the Imagination Library puts millions of books into the hands of preschool children in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of 2016 it had mailed children more than 70 million free books.