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New program spearheaded by Ohio First Lady brings free books to Cuyahoga County children

The initiative comes as a result of a partnership with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.

WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio — As a mother of eight and grandmother to 24, Ohio’s first lady knows for sure that books can change a child’s life. That’s why Fran DeWine is spearheading a program to get free books into the hands of every child in Cuyahoga County.

Starting today, every kid in every neighborhood in Cuyahoga County can get a free book a month from birth to 5 years old from the Ohio Governor's Imagination Library. The books even have prompts to help parents extend interest in the visual images and content.

"We know that 80% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they’re three years old," DeWine said. "So this is the most important time really in their life to learn."

As DeWine made the announcement, local kids watched, perhaps not fully understanding the First Lady of Ohio is working hard to make sure they’re ready for kindergarten. Bob Paponetti, CEO of The Literacy Cooperative (the local partner in the initiative), says learning to read is a fundamental block that impacts your entire school experience.

Credit: Romney Smith, 3News

"Up to third grade, you learn to read, and after third grade you read to learn," he explained. "So if a child is struggling entering kindergarten, they have to catch up in just a few short years, and unfortunately many don’t."

Keep in mind, sub par reading skills can continue well into adulthood. State Rep. Juanita Brent says it’s a serious issue in Cleveland.

"Right now in Cuyahoga County, one out of eight people are illiterate," she said. "That’s crazy. How to really change that? We have to start with our youngest people, and that’s our children."

Officials say the program has the ability to help end the cycle of illiteracy.

"We find that children of low literate parents are likely to start school behind, so again the cycle continues," Paponetti said.

By mailing the free books directly to the kids, it helps in case there are transportation or financial constraints at home. Mrs. DeWine is hoping the mailing of books will cause the kids to get excited for their monthly book, hopefully sparking a love for reading.

"Imagine the difference that will make in a child’s life if when they start kindergarten, they are ready for kindergarten and they’re right up with everyone else," she said.

Today, Cuyahoga County became the 55th county in Ohio to offer the program, with the next on the list being Lake County. If you didn’t know, singer Dolly Parton actually started the Imagination Library program.

Credit: Romney Smith, 3News

To learn more about the program or sign up, go to ohioimaginationlibrary.com.