Elgin agency ending Imagination Library in June

Editor's note: This story has been changed to say United Way of Elgin officials declined to name the source of a $15,000 grant until the money has been received so the donors can be thanked publicly at that time.

United Way of Elgin plans to stop its participation in Dolly Parton's Imagination Library early childhood program in June, ending free monthly books up to age 5 for about 2,400 registered children.

The agency initially said last week it would discontinue the program in March, then got an unexpected three-month reprieve after it was notified Friday of a $15,000 grant, said Elissa Kojzarek, the agency's director of marketing. She declined to name the source of the grant until the money has been received so the donors can be thanked publicly at that time. Meanwhile, the program is closed to new registrations, she said.

"We're excited that we can continue having children get the books for a couple more months at least," she said.

The agency has participated in the program, which last year cost $68,000, for 10 years, but has struggled to find consistent funding for it in the last couple of years, Kojzarek said.

About 2,400 kids are registered in the Imagination Library program through United Way of Elgin, Kojzarek said. Imagination Library is run by The Dollywood Foundation, based in Tennessee, and provides one free book a month up to age 5. Local affiliates, such as United Way of Elgin, pay for books and postage, and the books are mailed to the kids by the foundation.

Parent Amanda Jurgovan of South Elgin said she's disappointed the program is ending, because it's been great for her two daughters, ages 4 and 7.

"Not only it's good for the kids, but kids love getting mail ... For them to get a book each month, it's like a present. I think it further encouraged their love of reading," she said.

Imagination Library carefully curates its selection - including one or two bilingual books per year - and allows kids to build their own libraries at home, which could be out of reach for low-income families, she said. Plus, getting to the public library with small kids isn't that easy in winter, Jurgovan said.

There are more than 20 affiliates of Imagination Library in Illinois, with only two in the Chicago area: United Way of Elgin and Open Books Ltd. in Chicago, the website shows.

The program costs an average $30 per year per child, and the number of registered children hit a peak of 3,200 about three years ago, Kojzarek said.

The Elgin agency was able to join the program thanks to a few major donors whose contributions have run out, and it's been difficult to find consistent sources of funding, Kojzarek said. "Because we couldn't guarantee long-term funding, we decided that 10 years was a good time period that we had the program, and it may be time for us to look at some other early learning initiatives."

United Way has looked into doing fundraisers and has solicited community funding in the past, Kojzarek said. Diverting money earmarked for other programs is not an option, said Kojzarek, whose children also participated in the program.

"Ending the program is not what we wanted, but we looked at all the angles," she said.

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