ADA — For a little over a year, Ada Area United Way Success By 6, in conjunction with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library program, has been quietly supplying Pontotoc County children up to the age of five with reading books.

"It's a book program sponsored by the United Way that provides children in Pontotoc County from ages birth to five with free books," said Tiana Snider, Program Coordinator for the Ada Area Success By 6. "They get a free book every month in the mail until their fifth birthday."

According to Snider, the program spread so well by word of mouth that 1207 kids in Pontotoc County have signed up for the reading program. While the goal is to sign up as many children for books as possible, the annual funding has been depleted until the grant renews on July 1.

"The thing is, it spread so well," she said. "The word of mouth is amazing and the parents are really supportive. It's just such a high quality program that we need to raise money to save it."

In an attempt to save the program that allows children to get a head start on their reading skills, Snider and the United Way have developed a fundraising campaign.

"We started an Adopt-A-Child campaign for the whole month of March," she said. "Anyone in the community can sponsor one child, five children, 10 children at $27 a child, because that's how much it costs us to pay for the program. We're just really hoping that the community can see that it's really important, see that it's a value because it's helping children with reading and learning to read before they get to school."

According to the Imagination Library website, Dolly Parton first launched the Imagination Library in her home county in east Tennessee in 1996 so she could instill reading and its pleasures at an early age. She also wanted children who were raised in less fortunate households to have books and learn.

In 2000, Parton took the program to a national level, where each community pays for the books and mailing, promotes the program and registers the children. The Dollywood Foundation then takes the list and sends the books addressed to the kids.

"It's shown nationally that it's improved kindergarten readiness," Snider said. "They go to school with a higher vocabulary, the ability and understanding of what books are, learning to read the book from left to right in terms of stages and how to hold a book."

The United Way Success By 6 joined the program in December 2004.

"I think my first order, I had 300 children on it," she said. "That was with no advertising and just going to the child care centers, going to all of the schools in this county that have children under five."

According to the most recent Census bureau poll, there are more than 2200 children from ages 0-5 residing in Pontotoc County.

"We're at over half of the eligible population in Pontotoc County and it grows everyday," Snider said. "This month alone I've added 110 children."

Snider also said the program is inclusive of all children in Pontotoc County and not just for Ada.

"This really is just one of the programs that is truly reaching Pontotoc County," she said. "There are a lot of programs that say they serve Pontotoc County but they just mainly stay focused in Ada, but we have children in Francis, Fitzhugh, Allen has a lot of children participating in it, just every corner in Pontotoc County participates in this program. It really helps some of the smaller, rural schools who don't have those type of funds for literacy programs."

According to Snider, the books provided to the children are age-appropriate, hardcover, high-quality books have been selected by a panel of librarians. The initial book every child receives is an original, unabridged copy of "The Little Engine That Could" with a message from Dolly Parton. The final book the child receives is titled, "Kindergarten, Here I Come."

"There's 'Spot' books by Eric Hill, there's Eric Carlyle books, I mean they're books that everybody's heard of and liked," Snider said. "It's definitely not whatever books they had leftover at Pendant Publishing. I've had parents tell me that on book day, they've had their kids tell them to just leave the groceries in the driveway and start reading to them."

Snider said every month five different books go out and the the child will never receive the same book twice.

"They're delivered by mail and come addressed to the child," she said. "If they have four children under five in their household, each of them will get a different book."

According to Snider, Success By 6 surveyed kindergarten teachers at Glenwood Elementary in 2003 to assess school readiness and they found that 35 percent of children going to school were behind in their ability to read.

"Books are absolutely essential," she said. "Language and reading are the cement of a solid education. If a child is behind in their literacy and their speaking skills, they will also be behind in everything else. They'll lack the confidence to raise their hand in school; they'll lack the confidence to ask questions when they need help. They're more prone to drop out of school because they find school frustrating. So they don't want to try. It's by far the most important element."

Success By 6 has set a goal of $15,000 to be raised during the month of March to continue this educational program for the upcoming months. So far they have raised approximately $1,000.

"I'm hoping that by catching them young and early we'll be able to cultivate a crop of lifelong readers, that we can instill in them a love of reading and enjoyment of the whole process between the parent and child reading together, then that will turn into independent reading." she said. "Hopefully they'll use the library more often if they don't have books at home and they'll become better, more successful students and become successful adults because they've had this solid building block of early literacy intervention and early development skills that will help them with other aspects in their lives."

Monetary donations can be mailed or dropped off at the Success By 6 office or can be personally picked up by Snider.

"We have babies that are days old, weeks old and we've promised them books until they're five," she said. "We need to make good on that promise."

For more information, contact Snider at (580) 332-3323.