Lara Vanderhoof, the United Way's community impact chair, and others worked for more than a year researching how to bring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to McPherson County. Come fall of 2019, their hard work will have paid off when the residents of McPherson County will benefit from the fruits of their labor.

"That's really exciting," Vanderhoof said. "It is about making sure children from birth to five (years old) have access to books for free. That is amazing. It is an opportunity for families to build relationships and be exposed to language. They are bilingual; they are in English and Spanish and we are going to serve the entire community."

It is estimated that 1,800 children in the county could potentially benefit from this project. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a program that provides children with quality books from birth up until they start school, regardless of family income. In 1995, Dolly Parton launched the program through the The Dollywood Foundation and it has been a great success. Originally, only kids in Sevier County, Tennessee, benefited, but in the year 2000 it became a national effort, assisting kids across the U.S. 

For McPherson County, some of the funding has come from the Michael Andrew O'Connor United Way Challenge Grant annual grant, named for a man who was active in the United Way. The grant was established in 1995 with the McPherson County Community Foundation as a way to honor Michael's passing. 

As his wife Denise O'Connor-Munsey would put it, Michael was "an avid reader" and would have supported this program. 

"It is used to continue support of United Way programs as Mike would have wanted," Denise said. 

When Michael O'Connor found out that he and Denise would be parents, he began building their daughter's library, before she was even born. The first book he bought for that library and would later read to their children countless times was "The Little Engine that Could." In a beautiful irony, that book is the first book kids in the program receive.

"He talked about instilling the love of reading in his own children," Denise said. "I still have this picture in my head of him reading this book to her over and over again. I think Mike was telling me, 'you've got to support this program. ...This program is going to put books in children's hands to create their stories.'"

The grant will be going to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library every year for as long as it is needed. 

In 2003, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library hit a milestone when it mailed its one millionth book to a child. Now, many millions of books later, the program has gone global with launchings in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Republic of Ireland.

Executive Director of United Way of McPherson County Rob Mackey had the pleasure of meeting Dolly Parton, years ago. 

"I was so impressed by the passion she had for this program," Mackey said.

Parton has stated that her own father was illiterate and at the end of his life, said the library program was one of her greatest achievements. The program has been celebrated with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, Best Practices award from the Library of Congress Literacy Awards and was recognized in Reading Psychology.

Recently, Mackey found himself in the role of being a grandfather. His granddaughter is part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

"I got to read 'The Little Engine that Could' to her for the first time," Mackey said. 

While the funds from the Michael Andrew O'Connor United Way Challenge Grant will help, it is just a starting point. The program will need more funds and volunteers to keep the program going, but with the support of the community that won't be too hard.

"This is a really exciting opportunity for us all to come together around reading," Mackey said. "We have learned it is so important for kids to be read to and have access to books early in their lives. I really think we can do this."