Hagan Homes, one of Northern Ireland’s largest homebuilders, has pledged £75,000 to bring country singer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library scheme to Belfast.
The Imagination Library, which was set up by the star in the UK in 2007 as the flagship programme of the Dollywood Foundation, sees thousands of children from birth to five years of age around the UK receive a free age-appropriate book in the post every month to support the development of early language and literacy skills, and inspire a lifelong love of reading.
The books are carefully selected by a committee of experts in the UK and include popular characters such as Spot the Dog and Peppa Pig, and authors and illustrators including Julia Donaldson, Lynley Dodd, and Nick Sharratt.
The Dollywood Foundation provides the infrastructure enabling the programme, but it is made accessible to children in different locations through partnerships with what the charity calls ‘local champions’. Champions can be businesses, education authorities, small or large organisations, or simply individuals who share in the mission and purpose of the Imagination Library.
Here, in Belfast, Hagan Homes has taken on that role in what will begin as a pilot scheme being rolled out in partnership with nine Sure Start centres across all areas of Belfast.
Discussing the partnership, James Hagan, Chairman of Hagan Homes and now a Local Champion for the Imagination Library says:
“We believe in investing in communities and in building community capacity. Strong communities are the bedrock of a strong society. We want to empower individuals to believe in their own potential and to achieve all that they can. Encouraging people to read and fostering creativity from an early age, is extremely important. We’re delighted to be supporting The Dollywood Foundation UK as it introduces the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to Northern Ireland.
“Over the course of the next three years, Hagan Homes will provide £25,000 per year to provide 1,000 children, with a free age appropriate book every month.”
Welcoming the announcement Dolly Parton adds: “I am so excited that my Imagination Library program is being offered to children in Belfast. I have always known that if we encourage children to dream, we give them the chance to live those dreams. There is no better way to encourage their dreams than gifting books to them.
“Now, thanks to Hagan Homes, children living in communities across Belfast will receive the gift of reading. I hope that we’ll soon grow the program to reach many more children in Northern Ireland and inspire a love of reading that will last a lifetime.”
At present there is just one organisation here that delivers the Imagination library. Cliftonville Integrated Primary School was the first NI establishment to enter into the scheme, which has gifted over 130 million books to children in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and the Republic of Ireland since its inception in Tennessee in 1995.
Now even more children here are set to benefit thanks to Hagan Homes. Dr Marion Gillooly, Executive Director from The Dollywood Foundation UK, explains how the initiative will be delivered in Northern Ireland and why it is important:
“We’re thrilled that Hagan Homes has come on board to support the introduction of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Northern Ireland. We will also be working in partnership with Sure Start, to enrol children from birth to the age of four, in nine different locations across Belfast.
“Every month, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library will post a high quality, age appropriate book to all registered children. The book is free, there is absolutely no cost to the child’s family. The first books will be posted through children’s doors this month.”
Dr Gillooly says the benefits of reading to children from an early age are multifaceted.
She adds: “Sharing books with a child – and the earlier the better – has a huge impact. The first 1001 days of life are a period of significant brain development, and there is a growing evidence base which demonstrates the positive impact of reading to a child during this important period. It helps the child learn to communicate, and over time supports the development of literacy, creative thinking and confidence. But just as importantly, reading at home is about spending time together and having fun, strengthening bonds and creating shared memories.”
The Sure Start programme, which will benefit from the scheme in Belfast, supports parents with children aged under four years old, living in disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland. The programme can help a parent from pregnancy until their child starts school.
Kevin Duggan, one of the Sure Start Leads for the Health and Social Care Board NI, explains how Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library will support language development in children: “The evidence shows that the earlier families and children read together the better the long term outcomes are for children and in particular language development. Sure Start is a key early intervention initiative in Northern Ireland giving every child the best start in life. By giving children access to books and stories as early as possible we improve their language skills and most importantly show that reading can be fun!”
Mr Duggan continues: “The more language a child hears, the more words they have exposure to, and the more their own language skills develop. We know that children living in poverty lag behind their peers when it comes to language development. By the age of two, children living in poverty are already approximately eight months behind their more affluent peers in terms of language skills, and this gap widens over the years.
“Language skills are critical to literacy development, and to the child’s capacity to learn in general. Research demonstrates that reading aloud on a daily basis has a significant positive impact on healthy brain development and the child’s capacity to learn. We’re looking forward to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library rolling out across Northern Ireland.”