Engaging in reading can be a critical process for kids, even before they learn the skills to do so on their own, according to the National Early Literacy Panel.

About three years ago, the Monroe Public Schools Foundation decided to increase those opportunities for families living within the boundaries of the school district. The nonprofit partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for the Books from Birth program, so newborns and children up to 5 years old, have more access to books.

“It’s been a great program,” said foundation executive director Sue Skillen.

Most importantly, it helps communities address the importance of early literacy, she said. One book is shipped to hundreds of Sky Valley homes every month. Participation is free for each household, she said.

It was found that more than one in three fourth-graders struggle enough with reading they are unable to complete their homework successfully, according to a study by NELP. Three out of every four third-graders who perform poorly in reading are challenged just as much in high school, “further underlining the importance of preparing children to enter school ready to learn.”

Skillen said it is critical parents are a part of that effort. Getting a book in the mail each month can be “a great reminder to read to kids,” she said.

According to the NELP study, about a fourth of preschool-aged children enrolled in some type of center-based program. Kids in that age group are spending a significant amount of time with their parents, who are able to impact that vital skill set.

It has been shown that successes in early learning can continue in primary grades, according to the study.

“Not all children enter school equally prepared to learn to read, and those from the nation’s most economically disadvantaged families are the least likely to be well prepared to succeed — opening initial achievement gaps between rich and poor and black and white that are never spanned during a child’s schooling,” according to the study.

Accessing the necessary resources can be costly. Barnes and Noble’s listed four best-seller children’s books average between $5-10 each for ages 0-5, according to its website.

Skillen said on average it costs closer to $2.30 per book, or $25 to pay for one year’s worth through the Imagination Library. Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation launched the program in 1995. Books were only shipped to addresses in Sevier County, where the famous country singer grew up.

She started the program because of her father. While he was a very intelligent individual, not being able to read held him back from achieving all his goals. Before he died he told her starting the Imagination Library was one of her greatest accomplishments.

The nonprofit grew to reach a national audience by 2000, and three years later recorded the one millionth book sent. Now one million books are mailed to homes all over the world every month.

“Of course, I have not done this alone,” according to Parton. “The real heroes of our story are the thousands of local organizations who have embraced my dream and made it their own. They raise millions of dollars each year and wake up every day with a passion to make sure their kids have every opportunity to succeed.”

Monroe’s foundation fundraises the full amount for each local child who is enrolled, Skillen said. Other community groups are on board to support the organizations’ commitment to encouraging early literacy.

The Rotary Club of Monroe recently gave $2,000 to the foundation, she said. It will go a long way. Skillen said the foundation has not yet had to put anyone on a waiting list, but there limits with an annual budget.

“This generous donation will provide books for 80 children for a period of one year,” she wrote in an email.

Another community group just signed on to help out with the foundation’s commitment to early literacy.

Skillen said Monroe Public Library manager Phil Spirito has also partnered with the foundation in bringing programs to the area for families with children five years or younger. She hopes to expand the program and begin recycling older, unused books.

Skillen is still in the middle of working out the logistics, but said hopefully anyone with extra books they no longer use can return them to the foundation. Area events like National Night Out and school fairs may be a great opportunity to set up free libraries for families passing by, she said.

By the time a child receives all their books they will have a personal library of 60 titles. Books written in both Spanish and English were added to the list of copies sent out in 2015. No family will be turned away based on income.