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Published May 01 2012

North Dakota's first lady spreads literacy through United Way program

FARGO – What do you get when you combine North Dakota’s first lady and a May Day basket filled with fresh, colorful books?

A group of wiggly preschoolers interested in reading.

“If you know what happens in the story, don’t tell,” first lady Betsy Dalrymple cautioned the eager tots Tuesday in Fargo while opening “Kiss! Kiss! Yuck! Yuck!” by Kyle Mewburn.

The reading session was part of a May Day celebration to highlight a literacy program run locally by the United Way of Cass-Clay at a Child’s World Childcare Center.

Through Imagination Library, the brainchild of singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, 750,000 books have reached mailboxes of children ages newborn to 5 throughout the area in the past nine years.

The free books come monthly to any household that enrolls.

Though Parton can be credited on a national level for having initiated the endeavor to nudge children toward a lifelong love of reading, Dalrymple has helped raise local awareness in the last year especially.

Since January 2011, when she first climbed aboard the initiative, the number of groups participating statewide jumped from eight to 21.

As a former elementary teacher, Dalrymple counts literacy among the highest priorities in a child’s life, she said in a news conference before story time.

“When Jack became governor and I became first lady, people said, ‘All right, Betsy, what are you going to do to make a difference?’ ” she said. “And I thought, ‘I have to go back to my passions, which are early childhood education and volunteerism.’ ”

With the help of partnerships, investors and businesses, United Way has helped 8,600 local children experience the joy of opening a new book with their name on it each month, said Sherri Thomsen, president of United Way of Cass-Clay.

She’s benefited personally as the mother of two young sons.

“As an avid reader myself, it is a real joy for me to see my preschool children get excited when another book arrives in the mail,” she said, “And I love that the next words out of their mouth are, ‘Mama, will you read to me?’ ”

Thomsen said research shows that a parent is a child’s first and most important teacher.

“By providing books to our community’s children we are encouraging parents to spend quality time with their young ones and help build that parental bond and ultimately helping prepare their child for kindergarten, and hopefully a lifelong love of learning,” she said.

Apparently it works. The United Way was able to compare literacy levels of students who’ve received the books versus those who didn’t.

The results show that at the start of their kindergarten year, participants had higher literacy scores and were at a lower risk for needing remedial literacy instruction.

Following the gathering, volunteers from the United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council, along with Ashley Voigt, Mrs. North Dakota International, dispersed nearly 500 books in baskets set to be delivered to 15 area child care centers and organizations that serve children.