The Plain Dealer: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library sends free books to preschoolers

Jenna Huff snuggles in her mother’s lap. She turns a page of “ABC, Look at Me.” She runs her finger along a picture. She prattles as she goes. The sounds aren’t recognizable words, but that’s OK. According to experts, Jenna’s learning to read all the same.

The Cleveland Heights near-2-year-old gets a free new book in the mail every month from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a national program launched by someone better known for songs than books.

The program serves children from birth to age 5, regardless of income, in many parts of the country, including nine Cuyahoga County communities or school districts, all of Summit County and all of Lorain County. Any family in those areas with a child under 5 can sign up at

Jenna’s mom, Demetra Madlock, says Imagination has already taught Jenna to love books and understand a bit of the contents. “She notices things like trees and babies. She’ll say ‘tree’ and stuff. When the book’s upside-down, she notices. She points at stuff. She’s getting it.”

During Madlock’s workdays underwriting for Progressive, her parents take care of Jenna and read to her from the Imagination books. The parents are retired teachers, but neither family household has many books at Jenna’s age level. Madlock also says it’s hard for the family to take Jenna to a public library.

Studies show the youngest brains grow fastest, and the sooner they’re fed, the better. Children learn more by sharing laps and read-aloud times and conversations about the books than by seeing and hearing the same contents on a TV or computer. But many low-income homes have no books for young readers.

The library reached Cuyahoga three years ago. Now it serves about 2,500 families in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, University Heights, East Cleveland, Euclid and the school districts of Garfield Heights, Warrensville Heights, Maple Heights and Bedford.

The Cuyahoga program is part of the Literacy Cooperative, a 12-year-old local nonprofit that also supports elementary school tutoring, parent workshops and adult literacy programs. The Heights Family Foundation and Bruening Foundation cover the local costs: about $35 per child per year. The cooperative is seeking sponsors for more communities, such as Cleveland.

In Summit County, the library is run and funded by United Way for more than 12,000 children. In Lorain County, it’s run and funded by the Stocker Foundation for more than 5,000 children.

Parton started Imagination Library in 1995 in her home county in Tennessee. At, she says she got the idea because her dad couldn’t read or write. Still, “I knew my dreams would come true. I know there are children in your community with their own dreams… The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.”

In its 23 years, the library has sent nearly 100 million books to nearly 1.2 million children in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and Australia. Experts pick the 60 titles, and the library gets bulk deals from Random House publishers and the U.S. Postal Service.

The books range from obscure to acclaimed, such as Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” and Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could.” Two books per year contain both English and Spanish. The Cuyahoga program also supplies reading tips, a monthly newsletter and links to other services for children and families.

Imagination’s leaders say no fewer than 41 independent studies have shown the program boosting family reading habits and school readiness.

Local leaders hope parents use the books not to drill children but inspire them. Joan Spoerl, who runs the program in Cuyahoga, says, “We’re really emphasizing the joy of reading.”

The original article can be viewed here.

The Literacy Cooperative – 2017 Year in Review

2017 was an exciting year for The Literacy Cooperative. This year we expanded on some initiatives and began working with new ones. In Early Literacy, Reach Out and Read expanded to new sites and we began our work on the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program. We launched our #WordGapCLE initiative, which is raising awareness about the importance of parents and caregivers talking, singing and reading with children from birth.  We continued to expand our efforts with adult literacy and career pathways. We led the launch of healthcare and manufacturing contextualized curriculum and are getting ready to pilot a digital literacy contextualized curriculum. We also held a number of great professional development sessions along with our 7th annual Teacher Academy. Our 2nd annual Cleveland Corporate Spelling Bee (CLE-BEE) was a fantastic night of friendly competition and raising awareness about the importance of literacy. Our social media campaigns for Read Across America Day and International Literacy Day had great participation among our partners, community members, and elected officials. We wrapped up this year by launching our brand new website, Continue to read below for more details on our initiatives, events and the other work we did this year!


Early Literacy Outcomes

Reach Out and Read

Building relationships has been a key strategy for our Reach Out and Read Coordinator Lynn Foran in 2017.  Working through ROR Site Coordinators and Medical Champions at each clinic, 34,467 new books have been distributed to ROR-trained medical providers to share with families during well child visits with children under 5 years old, and 6,500 gently used books have been made available to children in literacy-friendly waiting rooms.

In 2017, ROR expanded from 23 to 30 active sites reaching families in key neighborhoods in Cleveland: Hough, East Cleveland, Collinwood, and Fairfax. ROR 2017 partners include MCPc, Barnes & Noble, PNC, Thompson Hine, Books-a-Million, West Shore Career-Technical Center, and WKYC.

Imagination Library

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails free books to children from birth to age five. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library expanded in Cuyahoga County this year as The Literacy Cooperative was selected to coordinate the outreach and registration of books to zip codes funded through The Bruening and Heights Family Foundations.

Through the Heights Family Foundation, TLC works with agencies, schools and libraries to enroll families in Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights, Euclid and East Cleveland.  The Bruening Foundation’s support expands the reach to Bedford, Garfield, Maple and Warrensville. The objectives of the initiative are to increase families reading together, foster a love of reading in children, improve school readiness, and inform and connect to parents to promote local educational opportunities

Over the course of the year we have established strong relationships with over 48 partner sites. Nearly 4,000 children have been enrolled. Parents receive a welcome letter and  monthly e-newsletters with reading tips, local free family-friendly events, and other resources for parents to explore with their children. We are connecting the Imagination Library to our Reach Out and Read partners to enroll families when they visit their pediatricians.


According to research, by the age of four, children in affluent families will hear 30,000,000 more words than a child in a family in poverty. The #WordGapCLE initiative was launched in connection with Read Across America Day on March 2nd.  Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words, Building a Child’s Brain, was our luncheon keynote speaker. She touched upon the importance of parents and caregivers talking, singing and reading with a child especially from birth to age three.  Building upon her research, we developed posters and rack cards emphasizing the four T’s (Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns, Turn Off) of developing a baby’s brain, which were distributed to doctor offices, business, community organizations and adult literacy agencies. The initiative continued throughout the year with blog posts and a social media campaign to raise awareness about the word gap.(To see more search #WordGapCLE on Twitter). This initiative was linked to Slavic Village’s literacy friendly neighborhood campaign, #SlavicVillageReads.


STEP (Supporting Tutors Engaging Pupils) served K-4 students in five elementary schools in three school districts: Fullerton School of Academics, George Washington Carver STEM, and Marion-Sterling in Cleveland Metropolitan School District; John Dewey in Warrensville Heights City School District; and Shoreview Elementary in Euclid City School District.  The volunteers were high school students from Cleveland Central Catholic and Warrensville High, JCU undergraduates, employees from Alcoa and adults from Grace Baptist Church.  In total, the 104 volunteers provided 227 hours of service in tutoring 148 students. The student attendance ranged from 41% to 93% and averaged 74%.  STEP students made the recommended yearly gains, and, in many cases, more than the recommended yearly gains.

Career Pathways Engagement

The goal of TalentNEO is to increase opportunities for Northeast Ohio jobseekers by demonstrating the value of a skills based approach to attracting, screening, and hiring qualified candidates. By creating a common language of skills between employers and job candidates, TalentNEO will change how hiring is done across Northeast Ohio.

During the second year of the pilot, TalentNEO assessed 1,828 individuals to determine skill scores for career pathway and job advancement opportunities through the WorkKeys assessments. 953 individuals requested upskilling assistance to increase their skill scores with 247 enrolling in staff assisted upskilling and the balance using the online self-directed tool.

NEO Skills Corps

NEO Skill Corps members strive to elevate the knowledge and education of adult job-seekers and entry-level employees with direct service in financial literacy training and basic skills instruction, including adult literacy. Members provide financial literacy training, adult education, workforce development preparation, and employment training with a focus on basic soft skills instruction. During the 2016-17 program year, 894 participants enrolled in financial literacy with 34% opening a bank account, 41% creating a budget, and 10% developing a debt management plan. For the adult education and workforce, of the 942 enrolled in services, 73% completed services, 114 obtained employment, and 681 took the WorkKeys assessments.

Contextualized Curriculum

Contextualized Curriculum is instructional strategies designed to more seamlessly link the learning of foundational skills and academic or occupational content by focusing teaching and learning on concrete applications in a specific context that is of interest to the student. Our work with the contextualized curriculum implementation is one of the best examples of giving this community direct access to best practice information.  Laureen Atkins, Director of Adult Literacy and Career Pathways, led the development, piloting, and implementation of contextualized curriculum.

In 2017, 45 students participated in Healthcare pilots, 5 students in a Manufacturing pilot, and 12 in a Hospitality pilot. Pilot sites included NewBridge, University Settlement, Lorain County Community College ABLE program, and Building Hope in the City. Results from the Healthcare pilots included NewBridge participants meeting the requirements necessary for registration into one of their healthcare training programs, and 67% of University Settlement participants successfully completing the sessions. Building Hope in the City had a 92% completion of their Hospitality program that provided the graduates with Ohio food handler certification.

Professional Excellence

Professional Development Sessions

More than 600 attendees participated in one or more of our 29 sessions of trainings, Literacy Learners Network, Teacher Academy and special events. We partnered with Cuyahoga Community College, Towards Employment, Seeds of Literacy, Aspire Greater Cleveland, and Euclid Council of the International Reading Association to provide sessions on reentry transitioning, mental health symptoms and services and creative writing.

Teacher Academy

This year 115 teachers and administrators attended our 7th annual Teacher Academy. Our annual event gathers teachers representing the First Ring Suburbs and Cleveland Metropolitan School District for a full-day program featuring carefully selected educators who demonstrate to a ‘classroom’ of peers, the strategies and resources that have proven effective in their classrooms. This year was our largest number in attendance and the first year we had teachers from each of the 16 First Ring Suburbs as well as CMSD. For a recap of the day and the sessions offered be sure to take a look at our Storify!



Dr. Dana Suskind Luncheon

As part of our Read Across America Day celebration, Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words Building a Child’s Brain, was our keynote speaker at a luncheon at the Wyndham Hotel with more than 170 in attendance. She spoke about the thirty-million-word gap and the importance of reading, talking and singing with a child from birth.

Read Across America Day

TLC celebrated Read Across America Day for the 2nd year in a row on March 2nd with a social media campaign. Our #WordGapCLE initiative invited Greater Clevelanders to post pictures or videos of themselves reading, singing or talking with their children. If they didn’t have kids, we asked them to be an example and post a reading selfie. We had great participation including Representative Jim Renacci, Councilman Kevin Kelley, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, Cleveland Mayor Jackson and his staff, as well as a number of other Mayors and organizations across Northeast Ohio. Take a look at our Storify for a recap of the day.


On September 7th we held our 2nd annual Cleveland Corporate Spelling Bee (CLE-BEE), sponsored by Third Federal Foundation and Lubrizol. Twenty-seven teams joined together for a fun evening of competition and raising awareness about literacy. Celebrities participating included WKYC Meteorologist Betsy Kling, WTAM Sports Director Mike Snyder, Common Pleas Judge John Russo, singer/songwriter Michael Stanley, and Cleveland Cavaliers radio voice Jim Chones. The final four teams included Cuyahoga Community College, United Way Services of Greater Cleveland, Medical Mutual of Ohio and Benesch Law.  Ultimately, Benesch Law dethroned Baker Hostetler and became our 2017 spelling champions, taking home not only trophies but a customized football donated by the Cleveland Browns, and custom jerseys donated by the Indians and CAVS. Be sure to take a look at our Storify for a complete recap of the night.

International Literacy Day

For the 4th year in a row we led a community celebration of International Literacy Day on September 8th. This year we built upon our #WordGapCLE theme and asked the community to share “How has literacy has empowered you?” using the hashtag #powerofwordsCLE. We received a number of great answers from Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, the Mayors of Parma Heights and Westlake, the President of Cleveland State University, President Berkman as well as a number of several patrons of the libraries.


Common Ground

On July 30th, TLC took part in The Cleveland Foundation’s Common Ground event. The event was focused on building connections, valuing all voices and sharing ideas on how to move Greater Cleveland forward. Our Executive Director Bob Paponetti and Reach Out and Read Coordinator, Lynn Foran hosted a lunch talk about the Thirty Million Word Gap at the Maple Heights Library.


Public Policy and Advocacy

Speaking Engagements

Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Workforce Board One Direction Event -October – Our President & CEO Bob Paponetti was invited to speak about the importance of advancing literacy, especially digital literacy.

United Way Services of Greater Cleveland requested The Literacy Cooperative staff to speak at three committee meetings – education, income, and resource development; regarding the work of TLC and to educate the volunteers on the early literacy and adult education landscape in our community.

City Year – Our President & CEO was asked to share the work of TLC with the new class of City Year Members.

Live on Lakeside – Bob Paponetti and Board Vice-Chair, Emily Campbell appeared in August to promote the CLE-BEE as well as discuss our initiatives.

Radio –  Mike Snyder, radio host of WTAM’s Cleveland’s Morning News with Wills and Snyder, invited Bob Paponetti to deliver the CLE-BEE words to him during his on-air show.  Mike asked him to participate in The Spew with John Lanigan and Mike Trivisonno as well.

Coalition on Adult Education/Ohio Association for Adult and Continuing Education Regional Institute – TLC was a major sponsor for this event held at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Cleveland. TLC sponsored the keynote speaker, Leslie Fisher,  on October 6, 2017.  Ms. Fisher, a national speaker on digital literacy learning, discussed with the group the history of technology and its importance in the classroom.

Pregnant With Possibilities’ Mommy & Me Ball. –   On Sunday, September 24, TLC teamed up with Reach Out & Read and WKYC to provide a literacy connection for over 50 moms and their children.  Reach Out & Read provided a reading nook for moms and children to share a book with ROR volunteer readers.  Each child selected a book to take home with them.

National Conferences

National Skills Coalition.   Laureen, our Director of Adult Literacy and Career pathways, attended The Skills Summit that was held in Washington DC and included opportunities for TLC to meet with U.S. legislators and staff as part of our Ohio Delegation.
In October, she attended the Skills in the States Forum in Nashville, TN to learn about workforce development and adult education strategies throughout the nation that focus on career pathway opportunities for low-skilled adults.

Dolly Parton Imagination Library Conference – Our President & CEO, Reach Out and Read Coordinator and Imagination Library Coordinator attended this conference.  Sessions focused on emerging evidence and evaluations showing the impact of Imagination Library, new marketing materials were shared, and suggestions for fund development.


Our Director of Adult Literacy & Career Pathways submitted an editorial, “The Path to Better Jobs Starts with Literacy, and there’s help” that was published in The Plain Dealer and on in June 2017.  It was in response to an article focused on employers’ struggles in finding qualified workers. Congressman Jim Renacci’s staff contacted The Literacy Cooperative for comments on his bill to Help Ohioans Move from Welfare to Work.

TLC was asked to present to the 2016-2017 Leadership Cleveland 2 class that was focusing their efforts on early learning. After presenting our work around the Word Gap, Reach Out & Read, and Imagination Library, Bob Paponetti was asked to join the class. His participation led to the Word Gap selected as one of the initiatives supported by the class. This led to the creation of a Word Gap Task Force under Invest In Children.

We want to wish everyone a Happy Holiday and a fun and safe New Year. Be sure to follow our blog and our social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) for up-to-date information about our the progress of our initiatives and the other work we are doing to advance literacy in the Greater Cleveland area.



How Has Literacy Empowered You? – International Literacy Day 2017

Photos from last year’s International Literacy Day

On Friday, September 8th the world will join together to celebrate the importance of literacy and reading on International Literacy Day. International Literacy Day is a day created by UNESCO to raise awareness about literacy and what being literate can mean for a person and a community.

For the last 3 years, The Literacy Cooperative has been celebrating International Literacy Day with a social media campaign. Each year we pick a theme and ask everyone in Northeast Ohio, as well as our followers on our social media platforms, to post pictures around that theme. We use your pictures and posts to help raise awareness about the importance of literacy.  To see a wrap up for the last two campaigns, be sure to check out our Storifys here and here.

We have spent most of 2017 raising awareness about the power of words. Since March we have been promoting and raising awareness about the 30 Million Word Gap. The 30 Million Word Gap states that children in low-income families will have heard 30 million fewer words by age 4 than their more affluent peers. (

Speaking, reading and singing are essential actions to build a baby’s brain. (Learn more here). The power of words never fades. Literacy and the skills learned as a child only grow as a child grows. Literacy becomes more and more important as a child becomes an adult.

That is why this year our theme for International Literacy Day is “How has literacy empowered you?” We are asking people to share how being literate has helped their life. Has literacy empowered you to find a voice you never had before? Or has it given you courage or determination to overcome challenges in your life?

On September 8th, share a picture of yourself with a sign displaying a word or phrase about how literacy has empowered you or a picture of you reading and a word or phrase about the power of literacy in your post. We ask that you post the pictures and explanations to your social media platforms with #powerofwordsCLE.

We want to use a day dedicated to the importance of literacy to show the world how words empower us every day. We take for granted the number of words we know and hear day in and day out. By raising awareness about the power of literacy we can help people understand why speaking, reading and singing with children is so important.

We will be posting on our social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all day on Friday September 8th. We will be sharing and commenting on posts throughout the day. We hope you will join us for this very important celebration. We hope to see #powerofwordsCLE trending to show the world that Cleveland understands the power of literacy and words.

Help us to continue to fight the low-literacy crisis in Greater Cleveland this #GivingTuesday!

sun_swooshAt The Literacy Cooperative, our mission is to work to advance literacy by raising awareness of the issue, promoting effective public advocacy and fostering a delivery system with maximum impact on the region. This #GivingTuesday we need your help to be able to continue to fulfill our mission.

In Cuyahoga County 435,000 adults read below an 8th grade level. To put that into perspective, we could fill every seat at First Energy Stadium, Progressive Field, Quicken Loans Arena, Wolstein Center, Public Auditorium, Public Hall and Playhouse Square with Cuyahoga County’s low-literate adults and there would still be 260,000 people left standing in the street. Many adults are unable to read bus schedules, medicine labels, nutritional information or their children’s homework. Making it difficult for them to find jobs, to keep themselves and their families healthy and for them to help their children succeed in their education.

Children who are born to illiterate or low-literate parents are less likely to be read to or spoken to at a young age. This creates a word gap from the very beginning of a child’s life. In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that low-income children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers before age 3. These children are behind from the very beginning of their lives.

There are communities in Cuyahoga County where more than 80% of children entering kindergartners are not academically prepared for school. From the very start, these children are facing an immense challenge — they start school having to play catch up in order to succeed in school. They have limited time to close this gap. By the end of third grade, children are reading to learn instead of learning to read and if they are not proficient readers by that point it becomes much more difficult for them to catch up to their peers.  One in six children who are not reading proficiently by third grade will not graduate high school on time. These children are more at risk of dropping out of school and becoming part of a cycle that becomes difficult to break.

Children need to be exposed to literacy and learning from a young age. When parents are engaged in their child’s education, their children are more likely to get good grades, have fewer behavioral problems and are more likely to graduate on time. Unfortunately, this becomes difficult for low-literate parents. They are challenged to engage with their children’s schooling and therefore are unable to help them succeed academically.

The Literacy Cooperative is uniquely qualified to maximize the opportunities and provide the literacy leadership needed for real system change. For the last 10 years, The Literacy Cooperative has worked to improve literacy in the Greater Cleveland area. We concentrate our efforts in 3 focus areas, Early Literacy, Adult Literacy and Career Pathways, and Parent Engagement. With our 3 focus areas we cover all the areas of literacy, maximizing our efforts to help Greater Cleveland citizens improve their lives and thus help improve the community.

In the last 10 years, we have helped parents to be their child’s first teacher using SPARK (Supporting Partnerships to fullerton-1Assure Ready Kids in Cuyahoga County).  We are coordinating our community’s Reach Out and Read program to help new parents understand the importance of reading to their children daily and connecting them with infant and toddler programs to help in the learning process. Using an evidence based program, STEP, Supporting Tutors, Engaging Pupils, we trained hundreds of tutors to use structured lesson plans to assist children struggling with reading. We continuously advocate for adult literacy services connected to career pathways to allow low-literate adults to engage in training and employment that leads to family-sustaining wages.  That’s why we are leading a partnership with northeast Ohio adult education providers and workforce development agencies to develop and implement contextualized curriculum programs in the Manufacturing, Healthcare, Hospitality and IT sectors.  We advocate for the increase of adult and early literacy funding and stronger policies that provide greater opportunities for our low-literate residents to receive support and wrap around services to succeed. We partake in days like International Literacy Day and Read Across America day to bring awareness to the importance of literacy. To learn more about our work, be sure to take a look at our website or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

To continue to be an agent of change, The Literacy Cooperative needs your help. On Tuesday, November 29th, #GivingTuesday we are asking you to support our work with a contribution.

#GivingTuesday is a global day of giving back to the community celebrated on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. #GivingTuesday was started in 2012 and was created to offset the intense shopping of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. People across the world come together to support and contribute to worthy causes and organizations. On Tuesday, November 29th we are asking for you to make a donation through our GiveGab page or through the donation button on our Facebook page. Through your generous support, we will be able to continue to fight the low-literacy crisis in Greater Cleveland.