Alisa Bahl invariably hears the preschoolers’ questions at about 5:00p.m. when they see her while leaving Family Star Montessori School-Northeast. They pose, what to anyone involved in early childhood education, is a music-to-my-ears query.
“They stop at the front desk and ask, ‘Did the mailman bring my book today?’” said Bahl, the school’s assistant director. “Regardless of whether I get a delivery or not, I generally get asked every day, ‘Is my book here?’”
Sara Randall poses for a portrait by the Little Library she helped have installed outside the Family Star Montessori in Northeast Denver. Photo by Sara Hertwig.
The books are sent monthly to children from birth until they turn 5 by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Sara Randall is the unpaid founder and director of the program’s affiliate in Denver.
Randall learned about Imagination Library, which Parton started in 1995 in her native Tennessee, while working as the communications director for a non-profit, pediatric dental surgery center in northern California. Randall moved to Denver in 2014 and attempted to generate interest here in Imagination Library, making cold calls to non-profit organizations that led nowhere.
But, at a fundraising event, Randall met Josh Hanfling, a lobbyist and principal of Sewald Hanfling Public Affairs. He arranged for Randall to meet with Paradies Lagardere, which operates stores and restaurants in airports, including Denver International Airport. Randall said that the firm agreed to back an Imagination Library in Denver with a pledge of $1,000 a month for at least five years.
Hanfling’s relationship with District 9 City Council Representative Albus Brooks was also instrumental in locating Imagination Library of Denver in the 80205 zip code, which Brooks represents, and which includes the Curtis Park and Five Points neighborhoods. Family Star, which is located at 2940 Curtis St., helped Imagination Library of Denver gain credibility in the area.
Randall launched the program in August 2015, the same month she became communications director for Colfax Ave. Business Improvement District. In mid-March of this year, she joined the Colorado Association of Mechanical and Plumbing Contractors as industry relations manager.
Randall, 34, is the president of Imagination Library of Denver, the non-profit organization established to run it. She also heads its six-person, all-volunteer board, and none of that will change because of switching jobs.
“I feel this is my gift to Denver, not to sound self-righteous about it,” Randall said. “If you can give back to your community, I feel like you should.”
Before the program began operating, Randall, whose mother is a librarian, sought advice from Tricia Shuster, who co-founded the Grand Junction Imagination Library in 2008 and whom Randall termed, “a mentor”.
“It struck me very early on that she really understood the importance of early childhood literacy and the importance of getting books in the hands of kids,” Schuster said. “And I think that was so obvious in her passion for wanting to bring it to Denver, which is a huge undertaking. She’s done a wonderful job of getting things off the ground there.”
The non-profit Dollywood Foundation, which operates the Imagination Library program, has early child educators select age-appropriate books, most of them hardcover, and all personalized with the child’s name on the wrapping. The foundation has an exclusive contract with Penguin Random House that enables the books, which are mailed monthly to a child’s home, to be purchased at discount by the affiliates, the term applied to non-profits like Imagination Library of Denver.
There are 26 affiliates in Colorado, where books are mailed to 11,582 children and about 1,400 affiliates in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Randall said Imagination Library of Denver pays the Dollywood Foundation $30 a year for each child registered, covering the cost of 12 books for that child.
Regardless of age, The Little Engine That Could is the first book sent to a child. The final book, sent in the month of the child’s fifth birthday, is Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!
Since Imagination Library of Denver’s inception, Randall said 427 children have received books. Currently, she said books are being mailed to 232 children, including all 64 preschoolers enrolled at Family Star. Because some of those children live in transitional housing, their books are mailed to the school.
“I think it’s been a great asset to our program,” said Bahl, the Family Star assistant director. “We highlight it on our tours. We highlight it during our enrollment. The majority of our families are below the poverty level, so for them, receiving a book a month is a really nice gift.”
Expanding to a second zip code, probably 80211 on Denver’s west side, is being considered, Randall said. She organized the Denver Grilled Cheese Festival on April 12 at the McNichols Civic Center Building that will benefit Imagination Library of Denver. Randall said ticket sales have far exceeded initial expectations, and her hope is the event will gross $50,000 and sustain Imagination Library of Denver.
Randall typically visits Family Star once or twice a month. The children have seen her often enough to know her, although not necessarily by name.
“I try to save a book so she can hand it to one of the kids,” Bahl said. “She’s just so excited to see their face light up when they receive a book. I think they kind of now know her as ‘the library book lady’.”