Growing up in the mountains of east Tennessee with a father who couldn’t read or write, Dolly Parton’s most valuable possession was the “coat of many colors” her mother sewed from various rags, she recalls in her autobiographical children’s book and in a song.
On Tuesday, she gifted a copy of her book, with her autograph, to the entire state of Washington. Parton’s Imagination Library program offers children free, age-appropriate books in the mail every month from birth to age 5.
As noted by Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, the program began in the southwest corner of the state thanks to Longview Rotarian Brook Fisher-Clark. Coincidentally, Reykdal said, Fisher-Clark was one of his students.
“You’ve made my career come full circle,” Reykdal told Parton on the stage of Tacoma’s Pantages Theater on Tuesday afternoon.
The program was then brought to Lewis County by the Centralia, Chehalis and Twin Cities Rotary clubs and the Lewis County Rotary Foundation. It was the Centralia Rotary club that first brought the idea forward locally after interest by member John Elmore.
Those groups later teamed with the United Way of Lewis County and, early this year, local supporters of the program celebrated Lewis County having the highest enrollment rate percentage of eligible children in the program out of any county in Washington.
Parton began the program in her home county in Tennessee with the help of her father, she told the crowd on Tuesday.
“I got my daddy all involved in that. And he took such pride in it,” Parton said. “He was a great help to me, personally, because daddy was really smart and he would have great ideas. … He got to live long enough to see it come to be, really, a lot of what it was.”
Today, more than 2.5 million children worldwide have been or are registered in the program, which has gifted more than 213 million books in total since it was founded in 1995.
Washington was the 11th state to join the program, according to a previous news release from the United Way of Lewis County, which had one staffer, Angela French, join the program’s statewide headquarters in recent years.
Funding of the program statewide also came with local help. Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, spoke at Dolly Parton’s visit on Aug. 15 alongside Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver. Together, the two co-authored a bill that used partial funding from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and funding from the United Way of the Pacific Northwest to bring the program into each of the state’s 39 counties.
Despite her legendary career as a country music star and the promise of an upcoming rock-n-roll album, as was mentioned by Reykdal Tuesday, Parton’s philanthropic, educational program brings her the most pride.
“It’s kind of personal to me. And, I think when you take on a charity to support, it really needs to be something that’s personal to you and that you’re passionate about,” Parton said. “And, of course, I do other things. But I don’t think I’ll ever do anything more important and more personal to me than this. Because the kids are our future, as they say.”
Parton sat down for an interview with Reykdal about her life, career and philanthropy before performing music for the crowd. A full, free recording of her Imagination Library celebration in Tacoma can be found at https://TVW.org.
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