By Todd Travis and Nicole Davis
When Dr. Susan Crisafulli had her first child in 2004, she was offered the opportunity to sign up for a free book program from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. She hadn’t heard of the program prior to that day, but she was delighted to participate and begin receiving books for her child. At the time, she was living in Tennessee, which is Dolly Parton’s home state – there, they have a statewide program allowing kids to enjoy this special experience.
After enrolling in the program, children begin to receive books once a month from birth to age 5. Over the course of those years, a child will receive 60 free books from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Books are selected by a panel of early childhood development experts, based on the child’s age, and are designed to engage with them at that particular stage in their development. Children can be enrolled at any point between birth and age 5 and will begin receiving books based on their current age.
Having had a second child shortly thereafter, Dr. Crisafulli remembers the joy on her children’s faces when they saw a book come in and their name would be on the label. But once her family moved to Johnson County, the program was not available.
“We thought that was a shame,” she said. “These books are our favorites. My kids loved checking the mail and got so excited when there was a new book.”
Dr. Crisafulli then got the idea to start a program of her own in Franklin. Six years later, Imagination Library Johnson County serves youth countywide. There are currently 3,800 kids enrolled – more than double since October 2022. The program has resulted in 108,000 books mailed out.
“I’m kind of astounded,” Dr. Crisafulli said. “When I started it, I thought we would be a little program. I was just thinking one foot in front of the other. We just needed to raise enough money to pay the portion that we have to pay. I would not have dreamed that in six years, we would have the entire county covered, almost 4,000 kids enrolled and be an official 501(c)(3).
Her motivation to open this program up to Johnson County students derived from discovering that 41 percent of kids in Johnson County are not prepared for kindergarten, meaning that they do not know the letters of the alphabet or sounds those letters make.
“I think people see Johnson County as a relatively affluent community,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place to live and we have really great schools. But I think what people don’t see is there are a lot of people who are struggling and there is often a correlation between poverty and kindergarten readiness. They start kindergarten behind. All the research shows that giving kids books before they go to kindergarten increases their chances of knowing the alphabet, so when they go to kindergarten they can learn to read more easily. If we can raise those kindergarten readiness rates, not only does that make life easier for our Johnson County teachers but it sets those kids up for success.”
There are no physical locations for Imagination Library. To join and begin receiving free books for your children visit: imaginationlibrary.com and click “Check Availability.”
Imagination Library Johnson County will have its second annual Storybook Breakfast on Nov. 11 with two spots open, at 9 a.m. and at 11 a.m., at Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin. Tickets sold out last year and Dr. Crisafulli expects it to do the same this year, so those interested are encouraged to get them early. The event includes a homemade pancake breakfast where kids have the opportunity to meet popular storybook characters, get their autographs and photos with them. For more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about August’s ICON of the Month: Dr. Susan Crisafulli:
What do you consider your greatest virtue? My willingness to work hard
What do you most deplore in others? The mistreatment of the oppressed
What do you like most about living in Johnson County? The wonderful sense of community
If you had to live elsewhere than in Johnson County, where would it be? Western North Carolina — I love the mountains!
If you could begin life over, what would you change? I would bring Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to Johnson County earlier.
If money were no issue, how would you spend it? I would love to travel more.
What makes you happiest? I love helping others achieve their dreams.
What is your favorite vacation spot? Any National Park
What do you do with idle time? I love jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles.
What is it that makes you angry? The continuation of generational poverty
What do you do to escape from reality? I love watching Food Network.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? My husband, the amazing Nick Crisafulli
Which living person in Johnson County do you most admire? Kathy Carlson, professor emerita, Franklin College
What is the quality you most like in a person? Kindness
What is your greatest extravagance? Delicious food
What are your fears and phobias? I’m not a fan of heights.
What has been the happiest time of your life? When I worked on an educational farm in Massachusetts
Which talent would you most like to possess? Being fluent in many languages
What do you most value in your friends? Their laughter and understanding
Which historical figure do you most identify with? Juliette Gordon Low
What is your greatest regret? Feeling like I don’t have time to take dance classes any longer
What tenet do you live by? “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” –Charles Swindoll