How important is reading for children from birth to age 5? According to Reading & Literacy Discovery Center of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, very. The group’s studies provide the first neurobiological evidence for the benefits of reading and the potential detriments of screen time for a preschool child’s brain development.

Locally, the United Way of Otter Tail and Wadena Counties (UWOTW) have been working with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for seven years to provide books for children birth to age 5 free of charge. But as the pandemic hit, so did the program’s funding and with 500 children enrolled in the program, the United Way is looking for help.

Originally started in 1995 by the country music star in east Tennessee, the Imagination Library has grown and covers numerous communities in the United States and other countries including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Book orders have surpassed a million a month after starting with only 1,700 in the beginning.

For UWOTW, funding for the program has come from private donations and the group’s Women United’s Little Black Dress fundraiser. “We were able to sustain this program with our Little Black Dress event, but due to the pandemic we were not able to have the event,” UWOTW executive director Mary Phillipe said. “The event and private donors have helped keep the program sustainable since we began in 2013.”

Phillipe stated that it takes around $1,000 a month to provide books for the children enrolled in the program. Books are mailed directly to the home. “We want to create that passion for reading. They start out with “The Little Engine That Could” and will finish with “Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.” All books are age-appropriate.

“There is endless research around the development of a child’s brain and they have discovered that most of brain development happens during the first few years. Getting the books into the hands of children is an inexpensive way to impact a child’s life and make it better,” Phillipe said.

To donate to the program, community members can call the UWOTW office, stop by or sign-up online at

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