WILLMAR -- Amid the research about early childhood learning, one of the figures that jumps out at Renee Nolting is this: By the time children from families with limited resources reach kindergarten age, they've heard 32 million fewer words than children from middle-class households.
As little as one book a month can help narrow this gap and increase the likelihood that more kids will be prepared for kindergarten, said Nolting, executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota.
"It really does start in those early, early years," she said.
It's among the reasons the United Way has participated since 2005 in Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a national nonprofit initiative by the award-winning singer to get books into the hands of young children.
Over the past seven years, thousands of books have been distributed to children ages 0 to 5 in the communities served by the United Way of West Central Minnesota. Families who sign up for the program receive a new age-appropriate book every month for each eligible child.
It's a well-used program, Nolting said. "Every day I open the mail, we have five or six more children being enrolled."
Her office expects to send out 25,800 books this year. As of May, nearly 2,100 children were registered in 30 towns across the region.
It's a service for many families who may not be able to visit a public library very often, Nolting said. "This brings it right to the home."
Even babies who are too young to hold a book can benefit from spending time with a parent who reads to them, she said. "Mom and Dad might pick up that book and bond with you."
Toddlers can begin learning colors and shapes and gain motor skills from turning the pages of a book, she said.
By the time they're 5, children who graduate from the program have their own collection of books and, it's to be hoped, have been instilled with an eagerness to learn, she said.
"It's so exciting for children. They get this gift each month," said Colleen Thompson Michels, co-chairman of Empower, a philanthropy initiative by the United Way that focuses on kindergarten readiness.
"I am convinced" the program has an impact on preparing the littlest learners to succeed in school, she said.
Renae Saunders, Early Childhood Family Education and school readiness coordinator for the BOLD School District, sees it as an effective way to promote literacy and prepare children for reading on their own.
"Kids love to get their own mail, and when reading can be tied to a fun memory in the brain, it promotes repetition and then families begin to hear, 'I want you to read to me,'" she said.
Nolting said the United Way remains committed to the Imagination Library and to increasing kindergarten readiness among preschoolers. Only about half of Minnesota children are prepared when they start kindergarten, she noted. "It's not just a local problem. It's a nationwide problem."
Participation in the Imagination Library comes at a cost, though. Although the books are free to the families who sign up, the United Way pays an annual fee to the Dollywood Foundation to be part of the program. The United Way also foots the bill for all the mailing costs, which will top $51,700 this year.
Postage increases have added up as well. In the past year alone, the rising cost of postage has added $200 to the United Way's monthly bill for mailing Imagination Library books.
The United Way is experiencing pressure on its overall budget as well. Of 57 agencies that applied this year for funds, 46 were granted their request, Nolting said. Volunteers who evaluated the requests and made funding recommendations "made tough decisions," she said. "It's just that the need is greater than ever."
The United Way fell short of its goal last year and has yet to meet this year's goal of raising $923,000. The deadline is June 30.
Donations can help ensure the United Way's continuation of the Imagination Library and other initiatives that benefit children, Nolting said. "The community has been amazing but the needs are so great in so many areas right now. Here's one avenue of many that you can help jump-start a child's life. I think every single thing makes a difference."