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An unlikely group helps fund literacy program across the state for early readers through Imagination Library

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Left to right: Wilsonville Imagination Library Executive Director Jan Rippey, Regional Director of The Dollywood Foundation Pam Hunsaker and Wilsonville Public Library Director Pat Duke pose for a photo during a road trip to promote Imagination Library.   An amalgam of rural electric cooperatives locally owned electricity providers for rural areas -- are emerging as a potent force for spreading the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

And a few Wilsonville leaders facilitated the surge.

Wilsonville Library Director Pat Duke and Wilsonville Imagination Library Executive Director Jan Rippey promoted Imagination Library in rural areas across the state, Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association Executive Director and Wilsonville resident Ted Case sold the idea of funding Imagination Library programs to rural electric cooperatives and the James and Shirley Rippey Family Foundation provided a generous incentive for organizations to start the program in rural areas.

In turn, the Imagination Library, which sends free books once a month to children under the age of five and recently celebrated its six-year anniversary in Wilsonville, is expanding in Oregon.

"What happened out of a chance meeting by Jan and Pat Duke has really taken this thing to another level," Case said.

Case says an Imagination Library can be particularly impactful in rural areas where literacy programs are less prevalent and jobs more scarce.

"The economy in a lot of these places is not great. Jobs are hard to come by. Literacy is of course the key to everything," Case said.

Over the last couple years, Duke and Rippey have hoped to extend the library's reach.

And after Jan's dad, Jim Rippey, died, the family's foundation had a little extra money in its coffers. The James and Shirley Rippey Family Foundation's mission is to serve children and address educational issues in Oregon. Seeing Imagination Library as exemplifying the mission, the foundation pledged to match any donation to establish an Imagination Library in 24 rural counties in Oregon.

Armed with a selling point to potential donors, Rippey and Duke hit the road last fall. The duo drove to 16 counties in an 1,887 mile road trip and met with local representatives to pitch Imagination Library.

"We're just so sold on this program is how easy it is to run, inexpensive, impactful and with the offer from the foundation, it really gave us energy to tell others and encourage other groups," Rippey said.

During a meeting in Baker City, they met Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative General Manager Les Penning. Penning was enthusiastic about the program and began discussing funding it in four counties.Immediately, Duke realized that Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, resides in Wilsonville. So he contacted Case for help.

Case is a member of Wilsonville Kiwanis, which was Imagination Library's nonprofit organization affiliate until the Wilsonville Public Library Foundation assumed the role, and his kids received books from Imagination Library when they were younger.

"My kids loved it. We really looked forward to going down to the mailbox and getting the book and reading the book," Case said.

So immediately, Case was on board.

"The light just went off in my head," Case said. "'Why shouldn't we do that all over the state?'"

Case has helped sell the idea to Oregon electric cooperatives and has also reached out to electric cooperative leaders across the nation. Case and Penning have since given presentations at state and national electric cooperatives meetings. They have helped 14 Imagination Library programs become operational or close to operational.

"Ted Case is able to use his position to create a greater good across the state and possibly across the nation. That's Ted and Les picking this up and running with it," Duke said.

Duke says many electric cooperative board members are aging and some cooperatives would like to use the Imagination Library to garner interest among youth.

"Funding these programs would attract younger people to the electric co-ops and get involved with the electric co-ops," Duke said.

The talks between Case, Penning and cooperatives across the nation are ongoing.

"I don't think there are any public plans but there are plans to go forward and look for a model to use electric co-ops throughout the country to help fund programs," Duke said.

Meanwhile, Duke and Rippey want to jumpstart as many programs up as possible before the James and Shirley Rippey Family Foundation's grant expires in June. Imagination Library costs $25 per child per year.

The duo has run into hurdles such as finding an appropriate nonprofit 501(C)(3) affiliate in rural areas, which each Imagination Library needs, but Rippey says they're in the works of bringing a few more counties on board.

"Our job is to get those people together and motivated to get going. We're bringing a carrot of the grant from the foundation," Duke said.

And Case as well as Duke indicated that forming Imagination Library programs in rural areas is easier than doing so in metropolitan areas.

"I think where we have a unique niche is these are small communities. Everybody knows everybody and you can promote it by word of mouth," Case said. "In larger areas it's harder to get the word out and harder to get a bigger reach."

Rippey has enjoyed promoting the program and is excited for the future.

"We've worked hard to help new groups start," Rippey said. "It's been a labor of love and exciting to meet new people across the state."

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