United Way receives $228,000 grant for Imagination Library

photo of the Imagination Library partners with a Health Foundation representative

Gina Millsap, Kristi Zukovitch, Jessica Lehnherr

Imagination Library Partners Announce $228,000 Grant
from Kansas Health Foundation

Three-year contribution benefits early literacy efforts of United Way and Library

July 10, 2019, TOPEKA, KS — Young readers in Shawnee County have received a big boost from the Kansas Health Foundation (KHF). United Way of Greater Topeka CEO Jessica Lehnherr and Topeka and Shawnee County Library CEO Gina Millsap announced today that KHF is providing $228,000 over three years to support local participation in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. United Way and the Library raise funds for the program, and United Way administers the program and oversees enrollment.

“The Kansas Health Foundation is such a tremendous partner in the fight for early literacy,” said Lehnherr. “They truly understand that changing the underlying level of literacy in our community is a necessary component of long-term community improvement. And they recognize the Imagination Library is a proven strategy for increasing early access to books.”

There is also value in children the same age having the same books at home. “Imagine every child in Topeka and Shawnee County reading and sharing the same classic stories,” said Millsap. “When they enter kindergarten, they have a powerful shared experience, regardless of their differences.”

Enriching the lives of children by inspiring a love of reading and learning is what Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library strives to achieve. The Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails free, high-quality books to children birth to age five, to their homes. At the end of its second year, the Imagination Library has a total enrollment of 4,866 or 44 percent of the 11,048 children under 5 years old living in Shawnee County. The program costs about $30 per child per year.

The KHF grant will help cover costs immediately while community fundraising continues. The goal is to create a large enough nest egg through donations that the program will be financially secure well into the next generation of early readers. Ultimately, both partners want to see every Shawnee county child enrolled in the Imagination Library as soon as they are born. There are no income requirements or restrictions, and no family ever has to pay to receive books.

Some parents or caregivers may not want to sign up because they don’t “need” free books, Lehnherr said; they can afford to pay for them. “But we want to encourage them to enroll their children so they can have that shared reading experience. If they are passionate about making sure that other children have access, it’s very easy to support the program by donating through either the Library Foundation or United Way. There is even an option to support the Imagination Library on United Way’s workplace campaign forms.”

Topeka/Shawnee County wasn’t alone in receiving assistance from KHF and had the second largest grant, trailing only Wichita.

According to KHF’s recent press release, “In early 2019, the Kansas Health Foundation (KHF) initiated the Sparking Imaginations, Building Literacy grant, providing $1 million over three years in partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL). The grant will help serve approximately 18,000 children in seven target communities in Kansas (Arkansas City, Dodge City, Garden City, Kansas City, Liberal, Topeka and Wichita).”

KHF identified targeted school districts as high-need based on below-average reading scores and above-average rates of free or reduced-price lunch recipients. Because the Imagination Library program in Topeka also serves Shawnee County, the grant benefits students in more than one local school district.

The Kansas Health Foundation identified “educational attainment” as one of its funding priorities because higher education is related to better health outcomes. Kansas data indicates that lower levels of education are often linked to lack of health care coverage, limited ability to pay for medical or dental treatment, higher use of tobacco products, increased obesity rates and poor health outcomes. The state average for graduation rates (2018) was 87.3 percent, which means that 12.7 percent of students were left behind. In addition, 63 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

“With the launch of our KHF “Can’t Wait to Read” literacy campaign, we knew that we needed to continue to find simple ways for parents to introduce reading to children before they enter school,” said Steve Coen, KHF president and CEO. “The DPIL initiative in these seven communities will help children build their own home libraries and help parents encourage the habit of reading from an early age.”



Connected individuals and families maximizing their full potential.

To achieve positive sustainable change through education, financial stability and health for everyone in our community.

United Way brings together people, companies and nonprofits in Shawnee, Jefferson and Jackson Counties to create positive sustainable change in education, financial stability and health. United Way remains dedicated to supporting Basic Needs, including food, rent and utilities, health and prescription access and safety from domestic violence.

The library’s mission is sparking curiosity and connecting our community through literacy and learning. Our core values are excellence, curiosity, literacy, freedom, teamwork and accountability. We help transform the lives of citizens through five Community Impact Goals: every child will be ready for kindergarten • everyone will discover their passion for learning • everyone will continue learning new ways to live their best life • Topeka and Shawnee County will be an engaged community of readers • the library will be a learning organization committed to excellence in: leadership, planning, customer focus, process management and partner focus.

The Kansas Health Foundation is based in Wichita, but statewide in its focus. With a mission to improve the health of all Kansans, KHF envisions a culture in which every Kansan can make healthy choices where they live, work and play. To achieve this, KHF focuses its work in four impact areas: access to affordable health care, healthy behaviors, civic and community engagement and educational attainment. During its 30-year history, KHF has provided more than $500 million in grants to Kansas communities and organizations and looks forward to working toward its mission and vision for many years to come.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails free, high-quality books to children from birth until their 5th birthday, no matter their family’s income. Dolly Parton created Imagination Library to guarantee access to books and to inspire parents to read to their children as much as possible. She developed the program in 1995 for her native Sevier County, Tennessee. Dolly’s vision was to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families. Imagination Library has expanded across the U.S. and globally. In 2018 a total of more than 15.2 million free books were sent to children in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the U.S.