Imagining Alive

Shawn Gilstad got more than he bargained for when Sherrie Moody read about his need to partner with a local nonprofit organization in order to start up a Charlotte County chapter of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
The Imagination Library program mails a specially selected free book each month to each child signed up, from birth to age 5. The books are geared to the child’s age and chosen by a team of teachers, librarians, child development specialists and literacy experts.Upon reading the editor’s column of the Port Charlotte Herald’s Dec. 28 edition, the dynamic executive director of the Charlotte Players immediately called Smith, who owns Shawn and Company Salon and Spa, to tell him she was interested and to set up a meeting. The two hit it off and agreed to a partnership.However, Smith wanted to start small, starting in one Port Charlotte zip code and expanding from there.
Moody convinced him to go bigger, to make the program available to the entire county from the start.Moody, a widely known figure in the community, introduced him to local movers and shakers and helped Smith get the word out about Imagination Library with information booths at a women’s expo at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County, a business expo held by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and a January Gallery Walk in Punta Gorda. She guided him in forming an advisory board.She’s also been a guiding force in giving Smith direction on how to imagine the local Imagination Library into life.“Sherrie was a wealth of knowledge,” Smith noted. “There’s a lot she knows.”She also surprised Smith with her zeal for the program, which she was familiar with from her yearly family trips to the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area in Tennessee. Moody said she’s seen the positive influence Dolly Parton has had in that community.Smith said, “I didn’t think I’d find anyone half of zealous as me about the program. If anyone is as enthusiastic as I am, it is Sherrie Moody.”Moody’s and Smith’s shared enthusiasm was infectious: Calusa Bank stepped up to provide a donation point for residents at its three branches and local representatives of Clear Channel offered $8,400 worth of 840 radio spots to promote Imagination Library.
Dolly Parton even recorded a clip just for Charlotte County.“It’s really been an outpouring of love,” Shawn said. “Everyone’s just so excited.”Moody feels the partnership is mutually beneficial for the program and the Charlotte Players, the oldest nonprofit in Charlotte County. She believes helping other nonprofits creates connections and pays off in the end.Moody told Smith, “I believe your program will be the catalyst for improving working with kids from preschool on up.”Moody explained that when creating the Charlotte Players’ children’s acting program, she discovered that it was difficult to work with children under third grade due to poor reading skills.
Moody said she has noticed a slide in students’ reading abilities in Charlotte County. She wants to do anything she can to get children to read before kindergarten, which not only will help them in school, but ultimately will help the Charlotte Players expand its children’s program to kids under third grade.Charlotte residents can go online to the Imagination Library website and sign up their children. Look for the Register My Child link at the top of the page and follow instructions.A rollout party is planned soon for registration and donations.Sponsors are needed to make the program thrive. The cost of the program is $22,000 per year. Smith invested 10 percent of his own money as a down payment to kickstart the program. He also has to raise $5,000 every five years to keep it going.People can sponsor one child for $25 a year. Smith hopes to encourage residents to increase that amount and sponsor $125 per child for the whole five years of the program. That covers the cost of the 60 books ($2.08, including postage) the child would receive throughout that time. Smith also is looking for corporate sponsors.Smith pointed out, “It’s about the books, the kids and making the community better. The program is designed to bring leaders of the community together.”In doing so, these leaders can help create the next up-and-coming leaders of the community.
Smith hopes to have a lasting impact by raising awareness about literacy rates in Charlotte County and improving them. He cited a statistic that the brain develops 80 percent by age 3.“You have to start reading to them so young while the brain develops so quickly,” he explained.Moody pointed out that it is important to change the mindset of families. “Reading is not just a job of the schools, it’s a family activity. It’s not the individual responsibility of the kid to learn to read.”She thinks Imagination Library is going to have a domino effect throughout the community, that student reading scores will go up and local children will be better prepared for grade school, middle school and high school, and ultimately be a better work force.“This is my legacy,” Smith concluded. “I don’t have kids, so now all the kids in Charlotte County are mine. This is about our community’s future.”Dolly Parton stated in a press release, “I am thrilled that the community of Port Charlotte has joined with us to bring the joy of books to your children. … We will do our part to make sure that the dreams every child in Port Charlotte will indeed come true.”

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