About 30 percent of Evans County's estimated 1,000 children under 5 years old receive one free book each month through the efforts of the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy and its local supporters.
The group hopes the gift will help improve literacy and even the local economy in years to come.
"The light bulb that came on in my mind was information that Evans County received when we were finalists for an industry and ended up not being chosen, and they were kind enough to tell us why," said Evans County Probate Judge Darin McCoy. "Part of the reason was that they felt that we had an uneducated workforce to choose from due to our high illiteracy rate."
Now one of its co-chairs, he helped launch the local effort after seeing statistics put about by the Ferst Foundation and Imagination Library about the importance of early reading.
"What was so interesting and really sold our group is that 85 percent of a child's core brain structure is formed by the age of 3, and there's less than 4 percent of public monies in education and development being targeted in this age group," said McCoy, who also chairs the local library board and is an acknowledged Dolly Parton fan.
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, founded in 1996 in her Tennessee home county, later received state seed money to expand to all of Tennessee's counties. In Georgia it is not a state-funded program, but the Ferst Foundation, founded in Morgan County, Ga., by Robin Ferst, coordinates private efforts. Ferst's website now lists 72 of Georgia's 159 counties as participants.
Where funded, the program mails books monthly to children from infancy to age 5 whose parents have signed an application. The books begin with "The Little Engine that Could" and conclude with one about going to kindergarten, with the volumes in between selected for the child's age at that time.
About 15 volunteers in Claxton and Evans County formed a Community Action Team in April and began raising money for the project. With the books costing $3 each, they noted that $36,000 would be needed annually to reach 100 percent of the target group.
As of this week, the team reports that about $21,000 has been raised. Evans County's effort received a $2,500 initial grant from a $100,000 donation that Dollar General made to launch the Ferst Foundation program in Georgia counties. An additional $5,000 was awarded by the Canoochee EMC Foundation from a fund that the electric co-op's customers supply by rounding up their monthly bills to the next dollar.
Other contributions have come from local businesses, groups such as the Mothers Club and Claxton Rotary Club, and individuals, some of whom sponsor one or more children for $36 each.
Meanwhile, the club has signed up just over 300 children to receive the books.
Fundraising has proven easier, and signing up children more difficult, than the Community Action Team first expected, say McCoy and the other co-chair, Dr. Joy Collins, Evans County's school superintendent.
"I think a lot of parents have misunderstood what we're trying to do, not understanding that it's for any kid that's zero to 5, not just underprivileged children or anything like that," Collins said. "The only requirement is the age requirement."
Children are already age 4 by the time they reach prekindergarten. But volunteers at last spring's Evans County Pre-K registration also encouraged parents to register their younger children to receive Ferst Foundation books. Similarly, registration forms were sent home with elementary school students in an effort to reach younger siblings. Other forms were sent to day care centers, and the Department of Family and Children Services, Evans County Family Connection and some churches have helped in registration efforts.
A booth that volunteers set up at the Christmas in Claxton festival on Dec. 4 helped push registration above the 300 mark. Ferst Foundation contacts have assured local volunteers that this isn't a bad start.
"They tell us that if you can get a third of the kids signed up the first year, you're doing good," Collins said.
Parents of children up to age 5 can register them at the Evans County Library, the Claxton-Evans County Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Education, or the Probate Court office.
Meanwhile, Evans County children who were signed up by September have now received their first two books. Books are mailed by the Ferst Foundation from a central location, but the local affiliate can contribute information to a monthly newsletter than accompanies each book, offering parents tips on how to share the books with their children.
Collins says she has read all the information available from Ferst Foundation and other research as well and is convinced the program can produce meaningful results. Morgan County, where the Ferst Foundation started, the number of -preschoolers passing the Kindergarten Readiness Test increased from 67 percent in 2001 to 82 percent in 2003.
"This is something that's good for kids, good for parents, good for families, and according to what they found out in Morgan County, it helped with test scores, helped with readiness. ...And it's also, hopefully, going to help the community," Collins said.
Evans County's Community Action Team vowed at the beginning to make it a continuing project and not stop after one year. They will continue fund-raising appeals and seek a new round of grants in the spring, Collins added.