Education

Navarros Donate $25K to United Way’s Imagination Library

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When she was a girl, Elba Navarro recalls, she and her younger sister regularly went to the South Side branch of the public library to borrow and read books.

“We were always reading. That was one of our pastimes,” Navarro said Wednesday. “I truly believe that children need books in their hands, in their homes.”

To share her experience with children throughout Mahoning County, the retired schoolteacher and her husband, local car dealer “Shorty” Navarro, donated $25,000 to the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley’s Imagination Library.

Imagination Library is an initiative started in 1996 by country music star Dolly Parton that aims to put books in the hands of children from birth up to age 5. Since 2014, when the Youngstown United Way office adopted the program, it has distributed 124,400 books to children in Mahoning County.

The Navarros’ gift will allow United Way increase the number of children the program reaches, said Roxann Sebest, chapter director of marketing and communications.

“It’s the gift of literacy,” said Kathy Mock, director of education and initiatives for the Youngstown United Way and a former schoolteacher herself.

The check presentation took place at the Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana on the South Side, where Mrs. Navarro, Mock and others read to, and took part in crafts with, children in OCCHA’s summer program.

The five-week program, which ends today, has 30 children, ages 5 to 11, participate each summer, OCCHA Director Mary Lou Reyes said.

“We knew we had to do more than just give free books to children in that [birth-to-five] age group, so we decided to have Imagination events,” Mock said. “We go to school districts. We go to OCCHA. We go to the library and we have evening events.” Families are invited to the Imagine with Us events.

While the children take part in the reading and craft activities, parents and caregivers are told how they can read to and with their children.

The program also offers “reading buddies,” volunteers such as Youngstown State University students and professionals who go into preschool classrooms to read and do crafts with the students, she reported. In addition, middle school students read to kindergarteners in Campbell, she said, adding that the initiative will be introduced in Struthers next year.

Beyond providing books directly to children, the United Way’s Imagination Library program provides books to OCCHA and other community entities for children to use, Mock said.

“What’s great about the books that we are donating today that we’re really spotlighting dual language books,” Mock said. “So they are not only in English but in Spanish.”

“We have a lot of children who are bilingual and a lot of children who are learning English,” Reyes said. OCCHA is conducting a literacy program to help children learn to read books and to teach their caregivers how to read to the children.

Since Imagination Library started, Mock said, she has seen more dual-language books offered for children. “That’s critical today. We have more and more diversity in our area and across the United States so we want to touch on all children,” she said.

The United Way official thanked the Navarros. Both – particularly Elba, being a teacher herself – recognize the importance of putting books into children’s hands at an early age for their success in school and later in life.

In some cases, children lack access to books in their homes, Navarro said.

“This is what these children need. They need to see this,” she said. They have people read stories to them, often, and “how much fun it is to hold a book in your hand. It’s like you go into your own little world,” she said.

Parents and caregivers can register children for the Imagination Library on the Youngstown United Way website, by contacting the United Way office or at any branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

Pictured (from left) are Mary Lou Reyes, director of the Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana; Bob Hannon, president of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley; Elba Navarro; and Kathy Mock, director of education and initiatives for the Youngstown United Way.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.