As a grandfather, Charles Burkett understands not only the joy experienced from reading to a child but also the value in it.
"When she was younger, I know how much (my granddaughter) enjoyed hearing me read to her," said Burkett, 59, of Memphis. "It's important for children to read during early development before they start school, and the only way is with a parent or a guardian working with them."
When First Tennessee's president of banking learned about then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton's efforts to bring the statewide Governor's Books from Birth program to the area, he immediately jumped on board.
"From the first time I heard the story of what Books from Birth was all about, to somehow help preschool children with their reading by providing a book to them each month, I don't know how you don't like a program like it," said Burkett, board member of the First Tennessee Foundation.
The Governor's Books from Birth program works with the national Dolly Parton's Imagination Library to provide one free hardcover, age-appropriate book a month through the mail to every child up to the age of 5 who registers with the program regardless of income.
With seed funding from the First Tennessee Foundation totaling $100,000, as well as other donations, the organization added Shelby County to its roster of participants in 2005. So far, the local arm of the program has provided more than 32,000 books to children, and serves 47 percent of qualifying children in the area.
"We have one of the largest Books from Birth programs in the country," said Nora Capwell, executive director of Shelby County Books from Birth.
Every county in the state participates in the Governor's Books from Birth, with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library spreading across the U.S. and into Canada and the United Kingdom. Working with a skeleton staff of two employees and close to 30 volunteers, SCBFB works with hospitals, schools, day cares and churches to sign up children for the program.
"We've done a really great job with outreach in the last five years. People know us, know about us, and will call us wanting books. It's a good problem to have," said Capwell, 41, of Memphis.
Through various fund-raising efforts, SCBFB pays half the $28-per-child annual cost of delivering a book every month to each child.
Books are chosen by a panel of early education experts and are purchased from Penguin Publications. Every book is wrapped with the child's name on it.
In addition to the First Tennessee Foundation's seed funding, the organization also participated in SCBFB's 2010 fundraiser, Tables of Content, held at the Botanic Gardens in January, as the title sponsor.
"The more kids we register the greater the need we have for funding," Capwell said.
Other sponsors include the Plough Foundation, the Hyde Foundation, Gerber/Taylor Associates, the Urban Child Institute and the John Dustin Buckman Charitable Trust. Capwell hopes to have every eligible child in the county registered eventually. To Burkett, it's a no-brainer.
"For a child to go to kindergarten, to start school and already have an advantage in starting off on the right foot, that's good for everyone," he said.
For more information about, to make a donation to, or to volunteer for Shelby County Books from Birth, go to www.booksfrombirth.org or call 865-820-4501.