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Chol-Awan Majok’s father fought for the well-being of the people in his Sudanese community. He believed that opportunities followed a solid education. Although he wasn’t fortunate enough to go to school himself, he wanted better for his children.

Chol was the first generation of his family to attend school when he immigrated to the United States at age sixteen as one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. The lessons he learned from his father ingrained in him that learning how to read and write is crucial to being successful in life.

“My father wanted us to do our best, go to school, read and write, and be able to change our country,” said Chol. “It is important to me to teach my children how to read and write, and to pursue higher education. I want to change the course of our family history.” 

Every Saturday morning Chol or his wife took their children to the library. Even when they were too young to know how to read, they wanted to teach their children the importance of learning. When his third child was born, Chol’s wife enrolled them in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library through the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County.

Imagination Library is a countywide program designed to improve children’s kindergarten readiness. Each month, enrolled children receive a free book in the mail addressed to them, up until their fifth birthday. The Community Foundation provides management, research and funding support to the Literacy Coalition toward this effort.

“A child should be able to get a sixty-book library by the time they turn five if they’re enrolled at birth,” said Ashlea Vallejos, assistant manager of the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County. “It’s completely free so families don’t have to worry about any financial obligation.”

When their books arrive in the mail, the eyes of Chol’s children light up. They can’t wait to read them, so Chol and his wife always set aside time to read them together as a family.

“When the new books come in the mail we take time to bond and read together,” said Chol. “It is a priceless tool for our children’s education and we are grateful to have this program available to us.”


Children who enter school unready for kindergarten can struggle, lose confidence and fall behind. A unique national program brought to Syracuse by the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County is working to change that.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL) strives to increase early childhood literacy skills by providing children from birth through age five with one book per month at no cost to their families. In 2010, the Literacy Coalition introduced DPIL in two of Onondaga County’s most impoverished zip codes. Positive results spurred the program’s growth to include the entire city of Syracuse. Most recently, the program expanded to all of Onondaga County.

The local implementation of this program has been truly collaborative in nature. More than 80 organizations partner to enroll children. Many also conduct children’s programs that correlate with the books they are reading. The Community Foundation supports the program by providing management, research and funding to the Literacy Coalition.

A recent study led by Le Moyne College faculty members, including Frank Ridzi, Ph.D., Community Foundation vice president, community investment, found that those who consistently took part in DPIL were better prepared to enter kindergarten than their non-participating peers by a factor of nearly 30 percent.

Imagination Library is proving to be an invaluable resource in developing literacy skills in our region’s children. Together, our community is helping children develop a love of reading that will last a lifetime.