Each month, UniSource employee TJ League’s sons get special packages in the mail: Books with their names on them.

The family makes the free books part of their nightly bedtime routine with 2-year-old Grady and 8-month-old Ryder.

The books come courtesy of the local chapter of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, an international organization started by the country music star that now sends more than 1.5 million free books each month to children ages 0-5.

UniSource supports the group’s local affiliates in Cottonwood and Kingman as part of our ongoing commitment to education, one of the company’s philanthropic focus areas. A $2,000 donation from UniSource this year is enough to cover books for 80 children for a year.

“My kids really enjoy the books. I’m glad that UniSource can help give these books to other families, as well,” said League, a Utility Technician for UniSource Gas in Cottonwood.

Parton was inspired by her father’s illiteracy to start the library in 1995 to improve reading in her home county in eastern Tennessee. Children who register for the program receive a free book each month in the mail. By 2018, the organization had given out its 100 millionth book.

But Parton’s group doesn’t do it alone: The library partners with local donors and organizations to help fund the books. Parton’s organization pays for the logistical support and the relationship with the book publisher, while local communities pay the reduced cost for the books and postage – about $2.10 a month per child.

“We want communities to feel empowered and feel part of this,” said Nora Briggs, Executive Director of the Dollywood Foundation in North America.

Starting in 2012, the Rotary Club in Sedona began its own chapter of the library for the Sedona area only. Four years ago, the library expanded with the help of all area Rotary Clubs to become its own nonprofit, called the Verde Valley Imagination Library, to serve the region, including the Cottonwood service territory.

At first, the group mostly signed up families of young children at events and libraries, which often didn’t reach those with the biggest need, said Jean Barton, a retired pediatrician who is Verde Valley’s program director and secretary. The library was able to reach more families through a partnership with the Verde Valley Medical Center to sign up newborns as they are discharged from the hospital.

Michaela League, TJ’s wife, registered her oldest son at the local library and her youngest son at the medical center, where she received “The Little Engine That Could,” after birth.

“It’s really sweet. The kids love it,” Michaela said. “Grady loves to get something in the mail.”

When the family heard about a local library fundraiser, TJ helped the group apply for a donation  from UniSource to help fund the books this year.

UniSource also gave a donation last year to the Soroptimist International of Kingman, which is supporting the local library.

Nikole White, Senior Program Manager of Energy Services, helped register children at a kickoff event held in late 2019 and gave them their first book. Her daughter, Chloe, age 10, read to children at the event.

“It was great to see the moment when families were given their first book to start their collection,” White said. “Children were immediately taking the books to a reading table and engaging in story time with their family members. The event coupled the feeling of family and generosity and tied that to reading and learning.”

Barton said providing books for the youngest children plants the seed of a lifelong love of books, along with establishing a base for learning overall.

“When UniSource provides a grant, it is saying early child education and early child literacy is one of the single most important things that you can provide for a community,” Barton said.  “It strengthens our future workforce and it will make our community healthy.”

If the program is available in your area, you can sign up for free books on the library website. You can also watch “Good Night with Dolly” videos of Parton reading stories.

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