PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Officials with the United Way of Aroostook are expanding a program they’ve been involved with for a few years now, in an effort to promote reading as not just a learning tool but a mechanism to bring families together.

“I learned of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library when I attended a United Way Worldwide conference in Nashville a few years ago. Dolly was the speaker,” said Claudia Stevens, executive director of the UWA. “Shortly after I was approached by a family who moved [to Aroostook] from outside the area. The family had lived somewhere where their child had received free books through the program. She contacted us to inquire if we knew about it,”

Stevens said UWA board members discussed the program and implemented a pilot project in 2010 in the St. John Valley.

“We wanted to see how the program would work. People liked it and it’s proven to be very beneficial,” said Stevens. “It’s a great tool to use. Early childhood education has proven very important. If you read to a child, they’re better prepared for school and later a career.”

She said the program is a nice fit with other projects the UWA is involved with.

“The board voted to take the project countywide. Our official launch will be Oct. 1. We have a special event planned, with help from the Aroostook Centre Mall and the Maine Jump. We’ll be there with representatives from our agencies who do work with early childhood development. The Maine Jump will be offering free entry from 3 to 7 p.m. for all children enrolled in the program,” she said.

The program is designed for children from newborns to age 5.

“Children are eligible up to their fifth birthday,” explained Stevens.

She encourages people to come and bring their children.

“The kids can play and everyone can have a good time,” said Stevens.

Once enrolled in the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program, Stevens said children will receive monthly gifts of books, based on their age.

“We mail age-appropriate books to participants once a month, until they reach age 5. We’ll have people at the mall with laptops who’ll be able to sign them up on the spot,” she said. “This is for all children in Aroostook County; the program’s not income-driven [based on income levels].”

“This program not only teaches reading skills but also brings families together, as parents spend time reading to their children. It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” said Stevens.

Funding for the program was made possible through a grant.

“The UWA received a grant, with no strings attached. We were able to direct the money where we liked and decided this was a good place to spend it. We received $25,000 and the board decided what the funds would be used for,” said Stevens.

As the program grows, Stevens said the UWA would continue to look for other sources of funding to ensure the program can continue.

“We’re pursuing funding to keep the DPIL program going far into the future. If anyone would like to contribute, just specify when making a donation this is where you’d like the money to go,” she said. “If a parent felt they wanted to make a donation, they can contribute but it’s not necessary to receive the books.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit www.unitedwayaroostook,org or mail a check to: United Way of Aroostook, 480 Main St., Presque Isle 04769.