Dolly Parton says she started her Imagination Library in honor of her father, Robert Lee Parton, who never learned to read and write.
On May 5, the country music superstar will be at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion to honor the state's supporters of her program -- like Jerry Adams and Fred Leonard. Adams is chairman and Leonard is vice chairman of the Arkansas Imagination Library.
On the Imagination Library website, Parton says her passion is inspiring kids to read.
"Before he passed away, my Daddy told me the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing I had ever done. I can't tell you how much that meant to me because I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my Daddy. He was the smartest man I have ever known but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams," she writes in a letter to her supporters.
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library provides books free of charge to children from birth to age 5, through funding shared by Parton and community partners in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Republic of Ireland.
As parents of adult children, Adams and Leonard share Parton's passion for literacy.
Adams describes himself as "a big STEM guy" -- the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. He retired from Acxiom Corp. in October 2007 after 34 years serving in a variety of senior leadership roles. He began his career as executive director of the Arkansas Research Alliance in April 2008.
He is a founding member of the STEM Coalition and served as chairman of the EAST Initiative, a secondary school technology-based project-learning initiative active in more than 200 schools in Arkansas and six other states. He also serves as board chairman of the Arkansas Initiative for Math & Science, an organization focused on advanced placement of math and science in Arkansas high schools. He lives in Conway.
"The reality is we lose way too many kids before they even get to pre-K or kindergarten due to some level of parental neglect. ... This is proven science," Adams says. "If a child is neglected, you can't recover. It is very hard to do that. So capturing these kids early on, getting a book in their hands before their first birthday is magic."
The book, which is sent by mail, is addressed to the child, which Adams says is "subliminally important."
Leonard was a leader at two nonprofit organizations -- counselor and manager at Youth Home Inc. and director of Future Builders Inc. -- before going to work at State Farm Insurance Co. in 1996. He is a State Farm agent in West Memphis.
"There is a two-generation approach to what we do with the Arkansas Imagination Library," Leonard says. "It's important that the kids get the books, and it comes in their name -- one book a month from age zero to 5. ... What we are also trying to accomplish is to have the parent actually take the book and read it to the child. When the child gets about 3 years old, they can't wait to get the book, and they start reading it to themselves."
The books are age appropriate. The first book is "The Little Engine That Could." The month a child turns 5 years old, they receive a customized version of "Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!"
Leonard ran unsuccessfully for West Memphis mayor in 2017 and says part of his platform was about literacy, adding that reading proficiency -- particularly in the Delta -- is low.
"If we want to change that dynamic, we are going to have to start early," Leonard says. "And I think the Arkansas Imagination Library and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is going to be a key in turning that around."
Both men credit Dr. Charlotte Rainey Parham, executive director of the Arkansas Imagination Library, with their involvement in the program.
"Charlotte introduced me to a lot of the science as it relates to early childhood brain development and the opportunity that reading provides in terms of connecting brain synapses. If you don't have brain stimulus as an early child -- even before you get to pre-K -- you are underdeveloped," Adams says.
"The Arkansas data has proven that people who had the early childhood experience that the Imagination Library provides do much better in science and do much better in school," Adams says.
Dolly Parton night at the Governor's Mansion is a sold-out event. For more information on her library, go to imaginationlibrary.com. For more information on the Arkansas Imagination Library, go to arkansasimaginationlibrary.org.