Imagination Library Key to Developing Future Workforce

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Jeff Rea serves as CEO and president of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce. Jeff Rea serves as CEO and president of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce.

There is a Chinese proverb that I love, it says "the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second-best time is today." The Community Foundation of St. Joseph County has been doing a little bit of both.

Twenty-five plus years ago, the Foundation was formed to work on initiatives and grant-making in the areas of arts and culture, health and human services, parks and community development, and youth and education.

Since inception, the Community Foundation has granted more than $100,000,000 to deserving causes and nonprofit organizations in St. Joseph County. Our community is benefiting today from the good work of the foundation.

Earlier this month the foundation planted a new “tree” that has businesses in our region excited for the “fruits” it promises to produce over the next twenty years and beyond.  

The Community Foundation is teaming up with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and bringing that program to St. Joseph County. Generally, any child from birth to age five who lives in the County can register to receive a FREE, new, age-appropriate book by mail once a month—no strings attached.

Parton, one of country music’s most famous stars, launched the Imagination Library in 1995 to benefit children near her home in East Tennessee. Today, more than 100,000,000 books have been delivered to children across the United States and in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Now, each month books are sent to more than one million children.   

For Parton, the program is personal. Her own father could not read. And though she considered him one of the smartest men she knew, she also knew his inability to read limited his opportunities. She hoped for something better for the children in her region.

So why does all this matter to the business community? Businesses are looking for talented workers equipped with the necessary skills to make them good employees. They know they really must have a couple of strategies to find those employees. A short-term strategy to meet today’s immediate needs and a long-term strategy to meet those needs down the road.

Employers know that those children that get off to a good start have a better chance to succeed and studies have shown that programs like the Imagination library help children do just that. Young children that are read to learn about communication, and start learning about things like numbers, letters, colors, and shapes. They also build listening, memory and vocabulary skills.

Recent studies suggest participation in the Imagination Library program is positively and significantly associated with higher measures of early language and math development. Other studies show that children that are read to as newborns have a larger vocabulary and more advanced math skills than other kids at their age.

As important, reading to young children teaches them that that reading is something to be enjoyed, not just a something that has to be done for school. Hopefully, that fosters a love of books that will contribute to a lifetime of learning through all that reading has to offer.

How can you help? Are you a parent, then it’s as easy as getting your child signed up and committing to reading regularly to them. Grandparent, aunt, uncle, caregiver, or neighbor of a home with young children, make sure they know about this opportunity.

You can sign up online or fill out a registration form available at any library in St. Joseph County. Once a child is registered, he or she will receive the first Imagination Library book within seven to nine weeks through the US Mail.

Jeff Rea is chief executive officer of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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