COMMUNITY HEROES: Two Carter Co. women fulfilling vision to bring early literacy to kids under 5 years old

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CARTER COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) For nearly 15 years, two Carter County women have played a large role in early literacy in the county, improving the way kids approach education.

Reading is fundamental for education, and a way for people to connect with their surroundings.

“The hope is by having the books in the hands of the kids, they can connect with parents, connect with teachers, connect with other kids and just have a better life,” Ashlee Williams said.

Williams has been the Carter County Public Library children’s librarian for 16 years.

She and Lilo Duncan have worked with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library since it began in Carter County, in 2005. Dolly Parton started it in 1990.

The two have helped fulfill the vision locally, by inroducing early literacy to children five and under.

“We found teachers will tell you they can always tell who reads these books because they do so much better in school.”

Imagination Library mails a free book each month to children from birth to the age of five.

Williams said, “Niswonger pays for the very first book, ‘The Little Engine that Could”. If they {children} are born in the hospital in our area, they get that book before leaving the hospital, and because it take six to eight weeks to get the next book, so that kind of gives them a little time.”

“The results of the job is what is so rewarding. We found teachers will tell you they can always tell who reads these books because they do so much better in school,” Lilo Duncan explained.

Duncan, a teacher for more than 20 years, helped start the program in 2005, Carter County, after she retired. She has been the chair for the program for the last 13 years.

“Bill Armstrong and Dale Fair started the imagination library in Carter County. Bill called me to be on the board,” Duncan said.

Williams said, “There are a couple that depend on gender. They also offer some choices, but for the most part they all get the same first book. It’s ‘The Little Engine that Could’, and they all get the same last book when they turn five, ‘Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come’.”

This is a total of 60 developmentally appropriate books given to kids before they enter kindergarten.

“They’re all really fun read alouds. They try to include different cultures, they include different holidays. Everything. It’s just a really well-rounded group of books for the kids. Board books for the younger ones because we all know they put them in their mouths. As they get older, the books are more difficult. There are some that they can read on their own,” Williams said.

There are 2,368 children in the Carter County Imagination Library program. 6,403 children have graduated it, thanks in part to the effort of these two women.

“It’s had such a wonderful impact on the community, on the children. I think it’s actually helped teachers too. I feel like it’s a great leveler of sorts because all the children, until they start school — kingergarten — they have the same books. They have the same experiences and they can share that when they get to school and they have a way of connecting with each other.”

Dolly Parton said it best, “if your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.”

A child between the age of birth and five may be registered online at All 95 counties in Tennessee have the free program. The program is in every state but not in every county in every state. Imagination Library is also in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

If you know someone who makes our community a better place to live, we want to hear from you! Nominate them to be an ABC Tri-Cities Community Hero! Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to nominate them.

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