Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #103. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb. 6, 2016; in print Feb. 7

Reading. You’ve just done it. You’re doing it now. And you’ll keep doing it — to the end of this column (I hope) and of course far beyond.

It’s routine. It seems so natural. Why make a big deal of reading? What’s the point of February’s designation, “I Love to Read” month?

Somebody who knows, up close and personal, why reading is a big deal is singer Dolly Parton. Her father was illiterate. His struggles were evident every day, but he made sure all his children went to school and learned to read. In 1995, she started a project called “Imagination Library.”

Parton’s idea sounds outlandishly ambitious — every child from birth to age 5 gets a book every month. That’s 60 age-appropriate books per child over the five-year period.

And the family pays nothing.

What started as a local Tennessee enterprise has gone global — the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia. And in a minute I’ll cite a statistic that will blow your mind and swell your local pride.

In 2005 the board of directors of United Way of Central Minnesota decided on Imagination Library to receive funds the organization had set aside for focus on a particular need of the community. United Way has maintained this commitment ever since.

In the local service area — Stearns, Benton, and parts of Sherburne and Wright counties — 10,479 children in 6,625 households were enrolled in 2015. Since the program started here 11 years ago, 1,067,809 books have been delivered, a significant percentage of the more than 60 million books that Imagination Library has distributed worldwide since its founding.

And here’s the statistic I promised you: Of the more than 1,600 community Imagination Library programs around the world, ours in Central Minnesota ranks 13th in size. This puts us well within the top 1 percent.  I don’t know of a stronger exhibit for the case that the St. Cloud area really is Greater>!

Literacy, as Dolly Parton knows, isn’t automatic. A community has to care about it, prioritize it, resource it. A book makes this clear! In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” all books are banned and burned. People memorize them and endlessly recite them in forest hideaways so that the wisdom, art, knowledge — in short, the humanity — that the books embody is not lost.

Fortunately, we aren’t in such dire straits. Many local organizations, in addition to United Way, support literacy, especially in the early, formative years when the brain is charting pathways and crossroads that will permit complex, nuanced understanding of the world.

There are numerous responses to the challenge stated forcefully by Mary Hinton, president of the College of St. Benedict, in her keynote address to the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner on Jan. 17: “A pipeline of success ensures that every child has access to books from the moment they are born.”

  • The Great River Regional Library has books for everybody, and gives special attention to programs for kids, including toddlers and preschoolers.
  • The Local Education & Activities Foundation, Rotary Club of St. Cloud, and St. Cloud school district have banded together for the Partners And Kids Reading A-lot Together (PAKRAT) program, including the summer Roll & Read Bus.
  • Partner for Student Success, collaborating with the United Way’s Early Learning Early Literacy network, has an Early Childhood Work Team, including representatives from the St. Cloud, Sartell-St. Stephen and Sauk Rapids-Rice school districts.

It takes a community, yes. But we all know it also takes a visionary and tenacious individual.

Imagination Library is deep in the heart of Betty Schnettler, who retired last year after 32 years with United Way. In honor of her, “Betty’s Books” is a source of funding for continuing and expanding Imagination Library.

During February you are invited to visit the United Way of Central Minnesota Facebook page to post about someone who inspired you to read. I’m sure there are plenty of people you’re grateful to for opening the world to you, but high on that list, I suspect, is someone who read to you and then started listening when you, in turn, read.

“I Love to Read” month is testimony both to the act of reading and to the books that fuel the reading. Imagination Library adds yet another dimension: parenting itself. You see this in United Way records from a focus group gathered in 2013:

“I had to learn to get animated with reading, or they would get antsy and be bored," says one parent. "Even now when I read to my 6-year-old, if I’m not animated she’ll say, ‘Mom, why are you reading like that? You’re not reading it right.’  Sometimes I suggest she read it to me, and I listen.”

Reading together — animatedly — is a first-rate family value.

My favorite of those focus group remarks: “It’s cool that it comes in the kid’s name … a big deal for them. ‘Ooh, I got mail!’”

A physical book in a physical mailbox, not pixels on a screen. I’m old (and old-fashioned) enough to think that’s, indeed, cool. Let’s celebrate “I Love to Read” month!+