Fran DeWine, wife of Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine, read books to children gathered at Nationwide Children's Hospital on Feb. 11 during an event to announce the launch of the Imagination Library program in Franklin County.

The Ohio Governor's Imagination Library program was created to provide young children with access to books throughout the state. About 83,000 children in Franklin County are eligible for the free books, which will be mailed to their house each month, program officials said.

DeWine said the program likely will be expanded to all Ohio counties by the end of March.

"My personal deadline is the end of March to get every county signed up," DeWine said.

She said the program allows children up to age 5 to receive a free book in the mail every month through a partnership with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.

DeWine said the books also are geared to the age of each child and change as children age. She said the first book all children receive regardless of age is "The Little Engine That Could" written by Watty Piper.

DeWine said the last book children receive at age 5 is called "Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come," written by Nancy Carlson.

The Ohio General Assembly has committed $5 million to the program for the 2020-21 fiscal year, according to Amy Timmerman, director of communications and marketing for the Ohio Governor's Imagination Library.

Imagination Library officials said they are working to ensure children in all 88 Ohio counties can enroll in the program in 2020 by providing a dollar-for-dollar funding match with each county that opens OGIL to its residents.

In addition to Nationwide Children's Hospital, the program also has local partners AmeriHealth, Anthem Inc., Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, HNTB Corp., KeyBank, L Brands Foundation and Sedgwick.

The Imagination Library is a program administered by the Dollywood Foundation, which was launched by the country singer in 1995 to distribute books to children in Parton's home of Sevier County, Tennessee.

The program since has grown and now distributes free books to children throughout the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, according to its website.

All books children in Ohio will receive are shipped from Parton's Imagination Library in Tennessee, DeWine said.

"Nationwide Children's Hospital is proud to be the Franklin County affiliate of the Ohio Governor's Imagination Library," Tim Robinson, CEO of Nationwide Children's Hospital, said in a statement.

"We know that children who develop an early relationship with books and who begin kindergarten ready to learn, are one step further along the path to their full potential. We look forward to working with the governor and the first lady to make sure the Imagination Library has the greatest possible impact for Franklin County children."

DeWine said she came up with the idea for Ohio to have a program from her grandchildren, who were receiving books in the mail while staying at her home.

"Our home is in Greene County, and they have been doing it for a number of years," she said.

Dewine said she has been focusing on rolling out the program to children who live in Appalachia and inner-city areas because of their limited access to library locations and transportation.

"Somehow, I think if that book comes in the mail you're going to find someone to read it to you," she said.

Eve Mueller, deputy director of communications for Ohio Gov. DeWine's office, estimated 140,000 to 150,000 children statewide have signed up for the program.

DeWine said there are a variety of ways to sign up eligible children.

"Lots of organizations like preschools are signing up kids every day," she said.

To learn more about the program or to register a child, go to ohioimaginationlibrary.org.

ominnier@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekOlivia