Enterprise Coworking Community Spotlight: Imagination Library of Denver

This month Lauren sat down with Sara Randall, Director and Laura Douglas, Director of Operations for Imagination Library of Denver
In 1996, Dolly Parton launched an exciting new effort, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, to benefit the children of her home county in Sevier County, Tennessee. Dolly's vision was to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families by providing them with the gift of a specially selected book each month.
By mailing high quality, age-appropriate books directly to their homes, she wanted children to be excited about books and to feel the magic that books can create. Moreover, she could ensure that every child would have books, regardless of their family’s income.


Lauren: [00:00:02] Hello and welcome back to Enterprise Coworking Community Spotlight. This month we're talking to Sara Randall, the director, and Laura Douglas, the director of Operations of Imagination Library of Denver. Sara, Laura, thank you so much for virtually sitting down with us today.

Sara: [00:00:18] Thanks for having us.

Lauren: [00:00:19] Of course. So let's get right into it. Why don't you guys tell us a little bit about Imagination Library specifically, Imagination Library, Denver, and what you guys do.

Sara: [00:00:32] Sure. So Imagination Library was started 30 years ago by our dear friend Dolly out in Tennessee. And it's a free book gifting program for any child in the city and county of Denver, for any child between the age of birth to five. Every month they receive a brand new book, right to their home with their little name on it. So they get really excited about reading. They are excited that it's a gift for them and just to build a really strong home library before they even start school.

Lauren: [00:01:11] Perfect. I love that.

Sara: [00:01:11] Really with this program, it is a free book gifting program. And it's just the here to inspire a love of reading and foster a love of books. The data behind it is really incredible. And so it really does show that this program helps with kindergarten readiness, third grade reading levels and on time high school graduation.

Lauren: [00:01:37] Awesome. Yeah, reading is incredibly important. I agree. So how long has Imagination Library been around? And also when did the Denver chapter start?

Sara: [00:01:50] Sure. Do you want to talk about the history of the program.

Laura: [00:01:52] You go ahead and do that.

Sara: [00:01:55] So Dolly Parton's father was functionally illiterate and knew that it really held him back and didn't want anyone else to feel that way. So in honor of her father, she created this program in partnership with Penguin Publishing Random House and a mailing house out of Knoxville. And it was so popular that it became a countywide program, it became a statewide program, and it's a pretty easily replicable model. So in 2015, me and some other friends, there wasn't a program here in Denver. And we wanted to we wanted to start this program. Frankly, I just wanted to volunteer for the program, but there wasn't one. So we started the Denver affiliate and we roped Laura in as our grant writer, and she's been amazing as her current writer since for what, four years almost. And it's gone really so quickly, though. And we started in Curtis Park and just a little pilot program in 80205 with 30 kids enrolled at a montessori school. And we've grown since then mailing almost 70,000 books, and we have nearly 4000 kids in the program that we mail books to every single month. Yeah. And you want to show them the book?

Laura: [00:03:27] So one of the other cool parts about the program is that all kids that are at the same age group get the same book. So in theory, they start kindergarten with the same language, understanding how to speak to each other, how to play together. They've all read the same thing so they can have conversations about that. And the very first book that everybody receives is The Little Engine that Could, and then it goes to board books, which are a little more age appropriate for the babies to be able to chew on and lick the pages and turn it upside down. And then it gets into more difficult books. Also, two books every year have Spanish/English content. This one is in Spanish and in English. And then when the kid turns five, they all get the same, Look at kindergarten, here I come book.

Sara: [00:04:14] As a way to transition out of the program and get excited for kindergarten and helping them know that they get even more books as soon as they start kindergarten.

Lauren: [00:04:27] Yeah, I love that.

Sara: [00:04:29] The other the other cool thing about this program is that the books, even though they're very popular, a lot of them are classics like Ferdinand and Tommy De Palma, Little Little Poems for Little Ears. They are specifically printed for the Dollywood Foundation for Imagination Library. And so what that means is that the softcover books have some parent reading tips printed within the book. And so that's another thing that makes this program really special, is that it helps parents who maybe this is our first child and maybe, oh, I have a book. The whole point of a book is to read it from front cover to back, and that's not necessarily what a two year old is looking for. So it helps with starting how to start to read the title the author what serving return is and just other ways to interact with a book with not just the words on the page.

Lauren: [00:05:29] That's really cool. And that kind of ties into our next question, which is what makes Imagination Library different from other kind of organizations that do kind of the same type of thing? But yeah, that's definitely a super cool that they have the books published specifically for them. With all the parent tips in there, I think that's really cool. Anything else that would make you guys stand out?

Laura: [00:05:55] So one of the other cool things about the program is there's no financial restrictions, so it's open to every kid. You don't have to be a low income kid. You don't have to live in a certain neighborhood. It's open to every kid. All means all. If you live here across the street in Enterprise or if you live ten blocks that way or 20 blocks that way, everybody is eligible for the program. And also, the kids get one free book every month. So that's a lot of books. We've got kids that are super excited. They watch the mailbox. We actually had an enterprise coworker who told a story about how he and his wife and their baby have a Imagination Library book dance so they know where the book is coming in from the mailbox. And so they have this dance and they always dance and sing when they pick up their book and get excited about the books.


Sara: [00:06:45] And Dolly really wanted to remove the stigma of this is a program for a certain demographic, wanted to make sure that anybody can access the program so like an equitable access book gift program so so that if you go to a public school and you have different levels of discretionary income in your house, doesn't matter because the gated community and other communities, they all read the same book so they can show up and feel really confident that, hey, that kid is just like me. I'm just like that kid we both got My puppy has a Motorcycle. And it's the largest book gifting program in the world. And currently in Denver, we serve 10% of all eligible population. Our goal is to mail 29,000 books per month. So we have we have lofty goals. But that's the other thing is that all of the books are age appropriate, developmentally appropriate. And they are all brand new. There's a lot of programs which are which are really wonderful that have gently used books, that kind of thing that they get at school or doctor's office. But this program is specifically for free school age children prior to kindergarten home libraries and creating just a real community and a love around books.

Lauren: [00:08:19] Perfect. Accessibility, that's definitely very important for all kids. So that's great.

Sara: [00:08:26] The other cool thing about sorry, the other thing about the program is that a lot of the books are titles that parents wouldn't think that their child would be necessarily interested in. So because you don't get to curate your own library,we hear that parents are like, oh, my daughter, my two year old got this book called The Little Excavator, and she's really into it. I would have never thought that my little girly girl, two year old, three year old, would have been interested in a construction book. And so and vise versa, right? Like you have like little kids that are interested in I Am a Rainbow and it talks about feelings and how to talk about feelings and how to identify and what that looks like. So there's a lot of cool things about getting books that you as a parent don't actually choose to be able to see what interests your child at such a young age.

Lauren: [00:09:25] Yes, very cool. That's awesome. So why did you guys choose Enterprise Coworking to work out of?

Sara: [00:09:35] Well, we were looking for a new spot, I think, two years ago, I think. And man, we've just had the best experience here. We have a dedicated desk. Laura and I have a dedicated desk and we have just met the greatest people that work around us. Everyone is so friendly. It's really great. We are a nonprofit, but it's really great to be in in sort of a sort of a shared space with a bunch of different organizations that aren't nonprofit. And it's great to get kind of feedback, especially from some of the guys that are near us. They have kids and we've signed them up for the program, so it's good to hear that kind of direct feedback because we mail books every month. The books go right to the child's home. So we don't get that direct feedback. So it's great to hear what parents have to say a few desks over.

Laura: [00:10:40] The other awesome thing about being at Enterprise is just the collaborative spirit. The person who sits right next to me is an awesome graphic designer, and when Imagination Library Denver was needing some graphic stuff done, we were able to go right next door to our friend Mike and say, Hey, can you help us design this? He came up with an awesome campaign and designed some fabulous stuff. Also, two of our other "cheapseat" friends had kids who had days off school, elementary and middle school kids who had days off school. And so they volunteered for us. One of them did some database entry for us because this kid was off school and didn't know what to do with them. And then another one had two of their kids helped us stuff folders for potential sponsors and funders. So it was awesome that our coworkers knew that there was work for the kids to do and their kids got credit for volunteering.

Sara: [00:11:36] As a side note, we especially love the enterprise staff between you and formerly Diana, formerly of Enterprise and Katie and Steve always makes a great cup of coffee. Every time I come to work it's just like a good, happy experience.

Lauren: [00:11:55] We love having you guys as members here. You guys are awesome. And that's really the true spirit of coworking, you know, collaborating, coming together, meeting new people that you might not have met in a stuffy, buttoned up traditional office.

Sara: [00:12:09] Exactly. And that is obviously not us.

Lauren: [00:12:15] Yes, we're pretty laid back here. It's a good time.

Lauren: [00:12:19] So last question would be, is there anything else that you want our viewers to know about Imagination Library, Dolly Parton, Imagination Library, Denver, anything like that?

Sara: [00:12:34] Well, we're always growing. We're looking for if anyone's interested in volunteering, we'll have some opportunities this summer, if it would stop snowing. We'll do some community outreach. And so I know people are interested in that. We are always looking for children to enroll. So I know there's 600 members in Enterprise and so if anyone has a child under the age of five, they can enroll at imaginationlibrarydenver.org. We'll be having some fundraisers in the fall. If anyone is interested, they can stay tuned. They can go to our website,imaginationlibrarydenver.org and find out a little bit more information.

Laura: [00:13:15] So it's also a super cost effective program. The cost of each book is $2.10 every month, which is super cheap. It's free to parents. Parents pay not a dime. And we actually can't ask parents to make a donation like it is a free program. So if anybody's interested, it costs $25 a year to mail 12 books to one kid. So it's a super reasonable program. So if anybody is looking for somewhere to donate, we'd be happy to help them out with that, too. That's my job.

Lauren: [00:13:49] Yeah, those are great opportunities. Great volunteer opportunities. So that is it. I want to thank you guys so much for sitting down with us. And Dolly, of course, for being here and sitting down with us, telling us a little bit more about Imagination Library Denver, about the whole process, volunteer opportunities. That was awesome. Thank you guys so much for being an excellent part of our community. We really appreciate you guys. Like they said, for more information on Imagination Library Denver, go to imaginationlibrarydenver.org. Thanks, guys.