Remember the Youngest

Today’s column: Honor, remember the youngest 9/11 victims today


Bernard Curtis Brown II loved school more than most 11-year-old kids.

“He lived to go to school,” his mom told The New York Times. “If he was sick, he would always say he was feeling better so he could get to school.”

Twelve years ago, Bernard put on his new Air Jordan sneakers and boarded American Flight 77. He was just 11. Just a kid in his new Kicks excited about being selected for a National Geographic Society marine research project in Southern California.

Bernard’s plane crashed that morning into the Pentagon. Asia Cottom and Rodney Dickens, both 11, also died that day on American Flight 77. As did sisters Zoe, 8, and Dana Falkenberg, 3. Three other children boarded a different plane 12 years ago. Two-year-old Christine Lee Hanson, 3-year-old David Brandhorst-Gamboa and 4-year-old Juliana McCourt were on United Flight 175, which crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Today, we tend to remember the flaming towers, the burning Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania. We tend to remember the brave souls who tried to retake control of their plane. We tend to remember the first responders who ran into the flames and smoke.

We tend to forget Bernard, Asia, Rodney, Zoe, Dana, Christine, David and Juliana — the eight kids who died in the attacks.Let’s remember them today. We can do so by helping our local children in their honor.

Dolly Parton created the Imagination Library, which mails free books each month to kids from birth to the age of 5.

The first book an infant receives: “The Little Engine that Could.”Books open new worlds for children to explore. They transport kids to lands where terrorists don’t exist, where fears are overcome and where anything is possible. Books become teachers, travel companions and buddies.

Charlotte County has its own Imagination Library affiliate, which sends out about 600 books a month to local kids. Shawn Smith partnered with the Charlotte Players to bring the program to Charlotte County in January 2012. By the time a child turns 5, he/she will have received 60 books.

“The whole idea is for them to create their own library,” said Sherrie Moody, executive director of Charlotte Players.

The cost to pay for one year of books for one child is $25. To pay for the entire five years, it’s $125. Donations can be made at any Calusa National Bank in Charlotte County or to the Charlotte Players (make sure the check is written to Charlotte County Imagination Library).

“We’ve given out … a little over 9,000 free books,” Sherrie said.Imagination Library is delivering books to more than 650,000 kids around the country.

As 9/11 memorial services take place today and as flags wave at half-staff, let’s remember those eight kids. Let’s remember Bernard who loved going to school. In his honor today, let’s get books to our youngest residents so that they too may enjoy school as much as Bernard did.

Christy Feinberg is a senior writer for the Sun. She can be reached at

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

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.”

Good Ideas

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.