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Free book program for Pittsburgh kids will end due to lack of funds

A book called ' I Am a Rainbow,' sits above a spread of other books that are part of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library sends free books in the mail to young children.

A program that mails free books to young children will be ending in the city of Pittsburgh due to a lack of funds, participating families learned last week.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library sends a book per month in the mail to enrolled children ages five and under. It aims to create a lifelong love of reading and help with early literacy efforts.

But participants learned the program will be ending this month in Pittsburgh because funds have been exhausted.

“Despite our best efforts, we were not able to find another program host; however, you are welcome to continue checking the Dolly Parton Imagination Library website to see if there are any other new programs serving your zip code,” according to a letter sent to participants. “We are also working closely with the DPIL team to find other ways to continue supporting this program because we know how valuable it is for our families of Pittsburgh.”

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The city launched the program in 2019 with a $250,0000 grant from The Benter Foundation; it received an additional $50,000 from the Hillman Family Foundation and $18,000 from McAuley Ministries in 2020, according to the city.

The Dollywood Foundation covers overhead costs for the program and negotiates wholesale pricing for the books, while local groups cover the costs of mailing and wholesale book prices, according to Imagination Library. A 2019 press release from the city estimated mailing costs at $25 per child per year. The city also handled outreach and promotional activities.

“Research shows that early literacy experiences including access to books in the home are fundamental ingredients for future academic success,” Tiffini Simoneaux, manager of the city’s Office of Early Childhood under former Mayor William Peduto said in a press release in 2019 announcing the program’s launch locally. “This program will enable young children throughout the city to build a home library of up to 60 books.”

Since it launched in 1995, Imagination Library has given away more than 200 million free books in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere.

“We’re disappointed,” said Maria Montaño, press secretary for Mayor Ed Gainey. “We worked hard to try to find another source of funding.” She said there have been additional conversations about other potential funding since last week’s announcement the program would end, and it is still possible another entity could take over. She estimated the cost to run the program at about $8,000 monthly, though costs increase when more kids enroll.

Pittsburgh families will receive their last book in April.

The program covered about 3,500 kids, said Lauren Wirt, regional director for The Dollywood Foundation; Imagination Library is the foundation’s flagship program.

A small group of children who are already enrolled in the program in some local zip codes — 15219, 15221 and 15208 — will still be eligible to receive books, she said, because of other funding.

Wirt said the organization is grateful to the city and is hopeful that a new local partner can still be found.

“Dolly’s goal is to get as many books into as many children’s hands as possible,” she said.

Updated: April 6, 2023 at 3:17 PM EDT
Updated to include more information about how many local children are enrolled in the program.
Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.