by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Ballyclare homebuilder, Hagan Homes, is celebrating one year since it brought the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to children around Belfast. The company, which invested £75,000 to introduce the three-year programme to families in the city in 2020, despite the pandemic, has successfully supported the delivery of 6,916 books to 1010 children through nine Sure Start Centres.


The reception from parents and children has been extremely positive, with many parents saying the benefit of reading has greatly enhanced their children’s development.

One mother said: “My children love receiving their books. I read almost daily now whereas before the Imagination Library I couldn’t imagine my kids being interested in or benefiting from reading until they were in school.

“My eldest has probably benefited the most. He has a severe speech delay but he’s able to use the books to communicate ideas and feelings. He often switches off the TV and brings me a book to read. He has limited words and sounds but he’s able to recognise all his letters, if you ask him to point to ‘E’ he can. He can also recognise shapes and numbers. It’s also encouraged him to talk and try to vocalise his thoughts but in a fun way as he can use pictures to express his thoughts. It’s a great tool to communicate and bond.”

The Imagination Library, which was set up by US country music star Dolly Parton in 2007 as the flagship programme of the Dollywood Foundation, sees thousands of children from birth to five years of age around the UK receive a free age-appropriate book in the post every month to support the development of early language and literacy skills, and inspire a lifelong love of reading.

The books are carefully selected by a committee of experts in the UK and include popular characters such as Spot the Dog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and authors and illustrators including Ed Vere, Nadia Shireen, and Nick Sharratt.

The Dollywood Foundation provides the infrastructure enabling the programme, but it is made accessible to children in different locations through partnerships with what the charity calls ‘local champions’. Champions can be businesses, education authorities, small or large organisations, or simply individuals who share in the mission and purpose of the Imagination Library.

Here, in Belfast, Hagan Homes took on that role last year in partnership with nine Sure Start centres across all areas of Belfast. Since then, the scheme has introduced many young children to the skill of reading and the art of storytelling.

Another parent benefitting from the Imagination Library in Belfast, added: “The surprise books through the door are brilliant. I have to say all of the books that have arrived are so diverse in book style and story. Believe it or not we have not had any duplication with the books we already had! Both my kids love receiving the books from the postman, as soon as they arrive we rip the plastic off and read them straightaway. The variety of books from the imagination library is outstanding and they are all very good books.”

Speaking about the scheme’s success in its launch year, James Hagan, Chair and Founder of Hagan Homes said: “We are delighted to receive the figures from the Imagination Library and discover that so many children are benefitting from this programme here in Northern Ireland.

“We believe in investing in communities and in building community capacity. Strong communities are the bedrock of a strong society. We want to empower individuals to believe in their own potential and to achieve all that they can. Encouraging people to read and fostering creativity from an early age, is extremely important. Reading parents’ comments on how the books have enriched their and their children’s lives has been very heart-warming, especially at a time when access to conventional educational settings has been restricted.

“We pledged £75,000 to the Imagination Library and 2020 saw the expenditure of around 20% of that, which means there are still many more children to benefit from this wonderful scheme.”

Dr Marion Gillooly, Executive Director from The Dollywood Foundation UK, comments:

“We are immensely grateful to Hagan Homes for their generous donation, which has enabled us to work with our Sure Start partners to give free books to over 1,000 children living in Belfast. The feedback from families has been incredible. We’re thrilled that Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has brought excitement and joy into homes across the city, particularly during the Covid restrictions.”

The Sure Start programme, which benefits from the scheme in Belfast, supports parents with children aged under four years old, living in disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland. The programme can help a parent from pregnancy until their child starts school.

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James Hagan, Chairman of Hagan Homes with Dr Marion Gillooly, Executive Director from The Dollywood Foundation UK.

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