Stirring Kids Imaginations

By PCH Editor Laura A. Schmid

Shawn Gilstad is on a mission to get children to read.

The soft-spoken, Southern-drawling Tennessee native was shocked when he arrived in Port Charlotte and found out that Dolly Parton’s popular Imagination Library, which was started in his home state in 1996, does not have a chapter in Charlotte County.

So he decided to start it up himself, on top of managing his new salon, Hair by Shawn and Company Salon and Spa, which opened in Charlotte Harbor this past year.

I met with Smith recently as he explained the Imagination Library to me. Make no mistake — Smith is passionate about the Imagination Library, which he has seen for himself bring positive results and improved literacy.

“It would put a book in every child’s hands who signs up,” Smith explained. “It wasn’t something I planned on doing. It was something I did out of emotion.”

But he needs a partner.

As part of Parton’s “replication” policy, as the “local champion,” Smith is required to have a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to collaborate with to distribute the book.

Here’s how Imagination Library works: Starting at birth, each preschool-age child — regardless of family income — is mailed a “high-quality, age-appropriate” book directly to her or his own home, according to the website The books are picked carefully by parents, teachers, librarians, child development specialists and literacy experts, according to an Imagination Library brochure.

The child builds her own library and, hopefully, a love of reading. Starting at such a young age also is designed to encourage parents to spend time reading to children, which helps to result in positive association with reading.

“It’s personal to me,” Smith said. “My grandmother a mountain woman, (who came from a family of sharecroppers) only had a third-grade education. The Bible was the only book they read.”

Smith relates to Dolly Parton’s urge to start Imagination Library because her own father couldn’t read.

Through the course of his career, Smith said he has met many people who were closet-case illiterates.

“You would be surprised,” said a dismayed Smith.

While Smith has put down the initial 10 percent of the money required to start the Charlotte County Imagination Library, he will also have to raise $5,000 every five years to keep the program. He said this works out to $2.08 a book.

He plans a fundraiser in 2012 to raise funds, but needs to find a local nonprofit who will help him with getting books shipped here and distributed.

If you or your nonprofit group are interested in working with Smith, call him at his salon, 941-625-0060, or email him at

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