Librarian donation expands free kids’ book program to south Salem

South Salem kids under age 5 can get a free book mailed to them each month thanks to a donation from a retired state librarian.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program intended to encourage early childhood reading, has expanded to ZIP code 97302 following a $20,000 donation from south Salem resident Jim Scheppke, who served as state librarian from 1991-2012.

Scheppke made the donation to honor his late mother, Dorothy Scheppke, who died earlier this year at age 95. She was a preschool teacher.

“We both shared the belief that books can be life-changing, beginning at birth. Every child needs their own home library,” Scheppke said.

Families can sign up online here.

The Imagination Library is run by Parton’s foundation and is intended to support early literacy by making high-quality books available to young children regardless of family income. Participating communities must have a local organization to sponsor the program and cover the cost of books and postage, about $2.20 per child per month.

“Parents who have never read to their children, when that book comes in the mail once a month, that book gets read,” Scheppke said.

In Salem, the Marion Polk Early Learning Hub launched the Imagination Library in late 2022. The program now mails books to over 2,700 kids monthly in participating ZIP codes, including north Salem and Keizer.

Scheppke said promoting early literacy through public libraries through programming for preschoolers and young children was a focus of his time as state librarian.

“When I retired, I didn’t lose that passion to try to help kids, little kids, learn how to read,” he said.

He’s volunteered with the Early Learning Hub promoting the program at community events.

“There’s nothing like having a state librarian as a champion for your project,” said Marjorie Lowe, who coordinates the program for the Learning Hub.

Lowe said families with young kids have a hard time walking by their table without Scheppke signing them up.

“His heart is very much in this program,” she said. “He just sees it as one of the most important ways to create life change.”

With the expansion, the Learning Hub is close to securing free books for every kid in Marion County.

Lowe said she’s been talking to Marion County’s Board of Commissioners about a grant from the county to pay for books in ZIP codes that currently aren’t served. The largest who aren’t yet enrolled in the program include 97071, Woodburn, as well as 97305, northeast Salem and Brooks.

The Learning Hub is also fundraising with Capitol Manor residents to pay for an expansion to west Salem.

Scheppke said with the county potentially covering an expansion to areas outside Salem city limits, south Salem faced the prospect of being the only ZIP code in Marion County without an Imagination Library sponsor. He stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen.

“I can’t think of a better place to spend some money,” he said. “It’s going to do so much good in my neighborhood.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.