Books from Birth building a community of readers

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective. With a staff of three and a modest budget, Shelby County Books from Birth is boosting early literacy by providing 70,000 plus children with a free book every month.
It’s an experience that most Shelby County children share. Every month across thirty-five zip codes, kids are rushing to their mailboxes to collect a new, free book. Right now titles like Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck and Runaway Tomato are making their way into the hands of Memphis toddlers free of charge.

Musician and Tennessean Dolly Parton launched the Imagination Library in 1995 to serve her home county in East Tennessee. By mailing high quality, age-appropriate books directly to the homes of preschool children, she found that the childhood literacy improved in her county.   

Within five years, acknowledging the wild success of the program, Parton announced that she wanted to take the Imagination Library to a global level. Her team went to work marketing and sharing the plans for starting similar programs all over the world.

By 2004, legislators in Tennessee created the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, becoming the first state to fully realize Dolly’s vision on a massive scale. The Imagination Library program was now available to every child in the state of Tennessee. Children from birth to age five were eligible to receive books at no cost to families, regardless of income.
The foundation routinely sends books and enrollment forms to any institutions hosting health or community wellness fairs
Since then, more than 23.1 million books have been delivered to children across the state.  To move that amount of books, however, the Books from Birth Foundation could not organize or fund the program on its own.

The Foundation provides half of the funds necessary and leaves the rest up to local collaborators who carry out the programs. These ninety-five affiliate programs foot the rest of the bill, fundraising for the other half of the funds.

Shelby County is proud to host the largest affiliate, Shelby County’s Books from Birth. This year, our county's Books from Birth is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Servicing almost half of all the children from birth to age five in the county, and another 34,000 children who have graduated from the program, Books from Birth has kept busy. So busy, in fact, that they are getting ready to celebrate their 100,000th participant this summer.

Inside of a tiny office tucked away behind Republic Coffee off of Walnut Grove, a staff of only three are pulling the strings. “We’re a community wide effort. Bottom line is to support parents who are working with their own children, who are working to instill that love of reading,” said  Andra DeVincenzo, Books from Birth Communications Manager.

Locally, they need to raise between $850,000 and $900,000 every year to provide the books and shipping for those registered for the program in Shelby County.

"Funds come from a variety of sources — grants form local foundations, local businesses, municipalities, and several individual donations. We absolutely rely on currently enrolled parents, graduated families, grandparents — any individuals who would see this as important.”

Proving to be such a valuable community resource and program, Shelby County Books from Birth also makes a lot of impact for a low cost. Just a $100 donation funds five years of books for a child in our county. Otherwise, many of these children wouldn’t have access to books in their own homes.

The Urban Child Institute, a longtime partner of Books from Birth, recently conducted a study on the effectiveness of the program in Shelby County. They surveyed the families of approximately 400 incoming kindergarteners, 170 who had participated in Books from Birth and 164 who had not. Two years later, they then compared reading test scores amongst both groups.

The results were clear. The students who had participated in the Books from Birth program prior to kindergarten entry had higher scores in reading development in second grade, compared to students who had not participated, especially in the areas of vocabulary and comprehension.

In a cost analysis, these free books cost very little per child but pay out in huge dividends in possible societal gains. The beauty of the program is that it is completely free for participating families and is available to all via a simple sign-up process. Ensuring impoverished children have access to the program and are getting signed up is of particular interest to DeVincenzo and the other staff members.

“We work with the organizations that are already there [working with impoverished children] — Porter-Leath, the WIC program, the UPP [Universal Parenting Place] centers, Childcare Resource and Referral, religious associations, the County Health Department — any groups that know where these children are and can get them the information.”
Grandparents are the largest group of individual donors
She shared a story about one individual volunteer who made it a personal mission to increase enrollment specifically in the Hickory Hill area. “This person brought forms and flyers to churches, daycares, health fairs. They really made a difference.”
Anyone who wishes to enroll their child has several options. “Every year we work to make enrollment easier and easier,” DeVincenzo explained, listing a multitude of ways to enroll.

New participants can enroll via the website, call the Books from Birth office at (901) 820-4501, or text the word “books” to 31996.

“We all see the complexities of the issues we face in Memphis — we watch the news, we know what’s going on. This program is so cost efficient and so cost effective. We can make a difference. We can help before there’s a problem,” said DeVincenzo.

To become involved in one of their fundraising efforts, make individual donations, or to register a child, visit their website.


Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
Signup for Email Alerts