PRINCE ALBERT -- A Spiritwood high school teacher has begun work to start a chapter of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Prince Albert.

Kurtis Hamel estimates the free book club could benefit 3,000 preschool children in the area and improve literacy rates.

“When people think of Dolly Parton they think of the big hair and the makeup and don’t often equate that with her philanthropy,” Hamel said.

Hamel has a special connection to Dolly Parton because he met her as a child with the help of the Children’s Wish Foundation. He battled a life threatening disease most of his childhood and used to find comfort in her songs. He said her rags to riches story fascinated him as child.

“She came from a very poor background, the forth of 12 children in rural east Tennessee and made it - become such a huge success. I of course enjoyed her music and her movies, and then as I became more of a fan, seeing some of the philanthropy that she’s been doing with programs like the imagination library.”

According to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library website, Parton’s father couldn’t read. That and the poverty in her hometown prompted her to start the charity.

Hamel needs about $5,000 to get the chapter started. The local community chapter pays $3.55 per book and the Dolly Parton Foundation pays for the shipping and does all the administration of the program. Were each of the 3,000 babies born in Prince Albert each year to end up enrolling, the program would need $60,000 to operate.

Hamel has the support of criminal defence lawyer Estelle Hjertas, who said many of her clients suffer from a low level of literacy and many dropped out of high school. She said the project would help the community.

“I love reading and I think reading is super important,” said Hjertas. “And it’s a nice thing to do so basically, our involvement is to fundraise and to get the money to pay for the books for the kids.”

Spiritwood principal Susan Fry supports the project and hopes people will donate to the cause. She said research shows being read to as a child improves language skills and vocabulary in children and makes learning to read easier for children.

“Having the opportunity for kids to have book in their hands from ages zero to five is an amazing opportunity. Those kids will develop vocabulary and language skills,” said Fry.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library expanded to Canada in 2006. It mails participants one free book a month from the time of enrollment or birth until the child is five years old.

It has been formally acknowledged by the Library of Congress in the United States and operates in five countries and is the second largest book distribution system in the world next to Amazon.

The program has given away about 132 million books.