By Chris Porter
Here’s my “Good Ideas” column, which is running Saturday. I moved it up a day because of the fundraiser. If you’ve been wanting to spend your Christmas money on a book, tomorrow would be a good day!
This good idea helps get books to children By Chris Porter Executive Editor
Give credit to Shawn Smith for sparking a good idea that Charlotte County is starting to get behind in a big way.The concept is fairly simple: Get free books in the hands of small children to help jump-start their reading and their interest in books. Doing this helps any kid get ready for school, and they do better when they get there. Any educator will tell you that.But not every family can afford books, so you need the community to step up and get organized to get the kids books for free.This great idea was originally Dolly Parton’s, when she started her Imagination Library project years ago in east Tennessee. It debuted as a national organization in 2000, and, since then, thousands of families all over the world have gotten free books shipped to them each month.But it’s likely Charlotte County wouldn’t have a chapter right now if not for Smith, a hairdresser, who didn’t know he was going to start an organization when he got to town a couple of years ago. He just wanted to help.“I am from east Tennessee, and I was under the impression that this program was everywhere,” he explained. “When I was having the grand opening for my salon, I wanted to make a contribution. I raised $5,000, including what I wanted to contribute myself, and then called a friend at Dolly’s office to see who was the local affiliate so I could give them the money.”Well, there wasn’t one.So Smith started on the road to founding a chapter. Parton was on tour, and he met with her in Sarasota. Then in Clearwater. Then in Hollywood. Pretty soon, the paperwork was done, and Smith used the $5,000 he collected to start a chapter in Charlotte County. That was October 2011.But he needed another piece, which was a nonprofit organization that could administer the project. That came after the Sun published a story about Smith and Sherrie Moody read it. Moody is the executive director of the Charlotte Players.“Dolly stressed to me that I needed to be with someone I could really learn from,” Smith said. “Then I met with Sherrie. Within the first five minutes, it was like I fell in love — that’s what it felt like. We’ve been together ever since.”They really got the ball rolling in January 2012, and since then have gotten 1,000 kids signed up and have shipped out about 10,000 books. Pretty good for just two years.Moody said getting the Charlotte County school district on board was a big boost. Smith explained that Charlotte County Public Schools superintendent Doug Whittaker learned about the program and wanted to get it going here. You can see why he’d want this — better readers means smarter kids, and better test scores.That’s when he found out Smith was on his way to doing it. Now Whittaker is on the advisory panel, as are Juli and Mike Riley, and Chris Dollinger from the district, School Board member Lee Swift, Blair Lovejoy of OneBlood, and the Sun’s own senior writer and columnist Christy Feinberg.Another person who stepped up was former Charlotte County property appraiser Frank Desguin.“I am actually an enigma with the foundation,” Smith explained, “Because it’s usually a governor, senator or elected official who is doing it. Well, Frank Desguin stood with me, and when he retired, Paul Polk stepped in.” Polk won the property appraiser’s job in the 2012 election.Now Charlotte County is a successful chapter, and has become a model for other communities in Florida that want to get an Imagination Library started.One of the things members are doing to raise money — it costs about $2.08 per book — is to have fundraisers at the Books-A-Million store in Port Charlotte. There is one going on from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today. Ten percent of purchases goes to the local foundation.“This has really started little libraries all over,” Moody said. “Some families have three or four kids, and they end up with a lot of books. I had one lady tell me she had 10 kids — not all were preschool-age and eligible for the program — but they all benefited from having the books in the house.”Smith talked about another grateful mom.“She said her child was terminally ill and died of cancer,” he said. “She said she would never have had that family time if they hadn’t had the books from the Library.”“It’s been a real blessing to have this support,” Smith said. “It’s a real honor and pleasure working with these people. Every day I wake up and I know kids are reading their books.”Chris Porter is executive editor of the Sun Newspapers, and writes a weekly column on good ideas by nonprofits.