When Kathy Heintz, director of community impact for the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, came to speak to the Ayer-Harvard-Shirley Rotary Club about a new program, the Rotarians did more than listen: they acted.

Within days, the club's leadership voted to donate to the Imagination Library initiative.

The program provides free books to children through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library (DPIL). The DPIL was started in 1995 by Dolly Parton because she wanted every child to have his or her own library of books. Dolly understood the importance of exposing children to reading at an early age, so she began sending one book, each month, free of charge, to kids in her county.

Thanks to Reading First, which is powered by United Way of North Central Massachusetts, a coalition of businesses and organizations committed to providing resources that improve literacy in our community, the Imagination Library was brought to the families of North Central Massachusetts in November 2012.

A pre-school literacy program, Imagination Library sends a new age-appropriate book to children enrolled in the program each month. Imagination Library is open to any child under age 5, regardless of socio-economic status. In order to enroll, children must reside in Fitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Winchendon, Templeton, Ayer or Shirley. Books are sent each month from the time the child enrolls until he or she reaches school-age.

"The program ensures children have quality books in their homes," Heintz told the Rotarians. "It promotes parent-child interaction, inspires a love of reading and strengthens the literacy level of a community."

She explained that, "in middle income homes, there are 13 age-appropriate books per child, on average. In lower income households, there is 1 book per 300 children."

That statistic inspired the Rotarians to do more than listen to an engaging speaker.

"We believe that this program is very worthwhile," said Chip Guercio, president of the Ayer-Harvard-Shirley Rotary Club. "The Imagination Library is an important way to improve the educational opportunities for children in our community."

For further information on Imagination Library, or to register a child, please contact the United Way of North Central Massachusetts at 978-345-1577.