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VOL. 126 | NO. 52 | Wednesday, March 16, 2011

United Healthcare Community Plan Pledges $250K to Books From Birth

By Aisling Maki

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Before an audience of fresh-faced young children, nonprofit leaders and elected officials at the Urban Child Institute in Memphis Tuesday, United Healthcare Community Plan CEO Scott Bowers presented the Governor’s Book from Birth Foundation with an oversized check symbolizing his company’s $250,000 pledge to support early childhood reading.

Seated front-and-center before Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. at pint-sized tables adorned with the face of Sesame Street character Elmo, the children were clearly the guests of honor.

“There is a correlation between literacy, books in the home and wellness – that level of awareness that is brought about by individuals being willing to read and communicate and listen and talk as we do with our children,” Wharton said. “It shows again that Memphis and Shelby County is on the cutting edge. … It symbolizes that our corporate citizens take seriously their civic responsibility.”

United Healthcare’s executive director for West Tennessee, Brian Dobbins, who said his own toddler-age daughter lights up each month when her book arrives in the mail, was approached by Wharton, who asked if United Healthcare had any interest in supporting Books from Birth.

“For me, there was no question it was something that we wanted to be able to support,” Dobbins said. “We didn’t know to what extent we’d be able to do that, but we definitely believed that it was something we had to do for the children of this county and the state.”

Over the course of the next two years, United Healthcare Community Plan, Tennessee’s largest Medicaid organization, will disperse the funds, which will support Shelby County Books from Birth – the local affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library – in providing a free, age-appropriate book each month to any child under the age of 5, regardless of family income.

“With 68,000 children potentially eligible for the program, it will allow us to go out there with a deeper outreach in the community,” said Nora Capwell, executive director of Shelby County Books from Birth. “Right now we have about 32,000 children, and at $12 a year for each child, it’s a vast amount of money that we need. So this gives us some stability, and validation for what we’re doing – that it really does make a difference in Shelby County. To have an organization like United Healthcare step up to the plate and believe in us is a great thing.”

Country music legend Dolly Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1996 as a gift to the children of her hometown Sevierville, Tenn. The program was later expanded to serve children statewide with the creation of the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation.

In all 95 Tennessee counties, the cost is divided evenly between a nonprofit sponsor organization and a state budgetary allocation administered through the foundation.

The Shelby County program, a nonprofit partnership between the Imagination Library program and Books from Birth Foundation, was launched in 2005 under the leadership of then-Shelby County Mayor Wharton, a longtime advocate for early childhood education.

Wharton said that one of the great things about Books from Birth is that whether children reside in Boxtown or Germantown, they’re treated equally.

“One thing they’ve got tucked under their arm that’s in common; they’ve got the same book,” he said.

Books from Birth has helped deliver more than 12 million books to Tennessee’s children since its inception in 2004.

Nearly 60 percent of all Tennessee children under the age of 5 currently receive free books in the mail each month.

“This generous gift will help children all across Shelby County be more prepared for school and a lifetime of learning, and we appreciate this commitment to early childhood education,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement.

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