“I think I can, I think I can …”

Those iconic words from "The Little Engine That Could" are going to be some of the first words children will hear and read, thanks to Dolly Parton.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which was recently celebrated by the Library of Congress, is Dolly Parton’s way of honoring her father. Growing up, the Partons only had one book in their house, the King James Bible. It was the only book they had to read and to be read from, so when she became famous, she wanted to give back to other children and families.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library sends a book to a child each month from the ages of birth until 5. If a children are registered at birth, they will exit the program with 60 books in their personal libraries. The first book they receive is "The Little Engine That Could," and the last book is "Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come." United Way of Fort Smith Area has been helping with the program since 2004.

“She is disseminating over 1 million books a month to children all over. It is amazing how this program has grown,” said Eddie Lee Herndon, president and CEO of the United Way of Fort Smith Area. “She contracted with Penguin House and has a team of experts from childhood learning, psychologists, and mothers and fathers that select age-appropriate books to be given to children each month from birth to 5 years old.”

While growing such a large library at a young age is impressive, there’s a lot more that reading at an early age brings to the table. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library has two main impacts: measurable and immeasurable. Measurable impact is typically judged from third-grade benchmarks. Third grade is a time when you can judge high school matriculation, future career choices and likelihood to choose higher education or entering the workforce.

Des Arc was one of the first places to track children's success after being on the program. The children would score as high as 80 percent on reading literacy tests compared with the state average at the time of 36 percent.

“Reading proficiencies are extremely important and what we’re finding is that children on the program versus children who are not on the program test out much, much higher,” said Herndon.

Immeasurable impact refers to things like the excitement of knowing a book is coming in the mail every month, and the joy of knowing the child will get to sit down with a parent or caregiver and read that book. It fosters paternal nurturing, which encourages emotional and psychological well-being of a child as they grow.

Amber Coats, a teacher at Northside High School, signed her son up for the program at his birth, and he went through the full extent of the program.

“We just recently went and sorted through his books to see what we need to get rid of, and those books were the ones he vividly remembers reading, and so we couldn’t get rid of any of those books. We had to hold on to those books, so they made a huge impact on him,” said Coats. “He is halfway through second grade, and he’s reading at almost a fifth-grade level. And I know it’s because we instilled that in him early.”

Brain development at an early age is incredibly rapid. That’s why it is so important to read and stimulate a child’s brain, so they can have that capacity for growth in their later years, Herndon says.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library program is completely free to sign up. Currently, there are 1,300 children in Sebastian County on the program. Including surrounding counties, there are 2,600 kids on the program.

“We have a great need in the community to have children on the program,” said Herndon. “And we could more than double that if we just have the resources. We fundraise for this and it’s extremely important that we have champions for Dolly and champions for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.”

“It’s a program I wish everybody knew about and everybody used here. I think, again, because of the sign up especially, it costs you nothing, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?” said Coats. “That’s a lot of books that you’re getting for free. It’s just a great program, I wish everyone would get involved in it. It’s amazing.”