Representatives from Manitoba First Nations communities, public foundations, the private sector, and government gathered at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg on September 25th to announce a province-wide effort to provide Aboriginal pre-school kids across the province with free monthly books for five years from a US-based foundation run by legendary country superstar Dolly Parton.
Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the Dollywood Foundation will provide a new, age-appropriate book each month for every child (ages 1 to 5) enrolled in the program in 55 of the 63 First Nations of the province. Each child will receive a book on the third week of each month, addressed in their name from Canada Post. Right now, the total stands at about 10,000.
The province-wide strategy was initiated by early childhood development worker Karen Davis of the Ebb and Flow First Nation in 2003 when Davis took a 45-hour bus ride to Nashville to watch Inuk hockey player Jordin Tootoo play his debut NHL game with the Nashville Predators on October 3, 2003. While in Nashville, Davis visited the Dollywood Foundation and told them of her desire to start a literacy program for preschool Aboriginal children in Manitoba. The chance meeting initiated the formation of a local First Nations steering committee to oversee the effort and at least nine trips to Canada by David Dodson, who is now secretary of the Dollywood Foundation of Canada. “This has been a long time coming, and I’m thrilled this day has finally arrived. But this is only the beginning,” said Davis.
Support for the province-wide effort has been led by the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, with significant financial contributions from the Winnipeg Foundation, Hugo Munro Construction, and the Frontier School Division, adding up to about $1 million. Another $250,000 in additional funds is needed to secure support for the eight remaining First Nations communities for the five-year distribution period.
There are plans to add culturally specific books printed and distributed by the First Nations Education Resource Centre as well and an initiative to enhance current efforts to inspire parents to become more involved with the education of their pre-school children. Davis sees this as a natural progression of the program because the books are addressed to the children themselves as they build their own personal libraries. “I hear from parents all the time. These children are so excited because they know these books belong to them, and they know Dolly Parton sent them. It’s like it’s their birthday on the third week of each month,” said Davis. “This will plant a strong seed for family literacy,” Davis continued. “In our communities, we don’t have libraries or access to pre-school books, so this gives us an opportunity to promote literacy, language, and learning.”
The first book the children will receive is I am a Rainbow, signed by Dolly Parton herself, and the last book they receive is Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come, completing a personal library of 60 books. In Canada, the Dollywood Foundation’s efforts focus on rural and isolated communities and includes a territory-wide program in the Yukon and a large program in Fort McMurray, AB. “We’re hoping that what is happening in Manitoba will have a ripple effect in other provinces that they can replicate,” said Davis.
Davis said the success of the program lies in the low cost of the books. Each book costs just $3.80, including shipping. “That’s the gift of the program. It’s very easy to replicate,” said Davis. Since it’s founding in 1988, the Dollywood Foundation has provided over 50 million books to children in the USA, Great Britain, Australia, and Canada. Find more information at [ca.imaginationlibrary.com].