In the spirit of Dolly Parton’s country music roots, race participant Mendenhall River Community School Principal Eric Filardi runs in costume with young Lucy Vogel wearing heart-shaped sunglasses as they enjoy the sunny Saturday weather on the Airport Dike Trail race course. About 85 runners participated, many wearing pearls and pink hats provided at the starting tent. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

In the spirit of Dolly Parton’s country music roots, race participant Mendenhall River Community School Principal Eric Filardi runs in costume with young Lucy Vogel wearing heart-shaped sunglasses as they enjoy the sunny Saturday weather on the Airport Dike Trail race course. About 85 runners participated, many wearing pearls and pink hats provided at the starting tent. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Busting out the pink and pearls at the first Dolly Dash

Dolly Parton-inspired fun run raises funds for free books for kids.

Unmistakable accoutrements identified fun run sponsors on Saturday as pre-race runners were greeted by Dolly Parton look-alikes at the Airport Dike Trail. Flouncy blonde wigs, strands of pearls and pink cowboy hats identified the staff and volunteers registering participants for the first annual 1K/5k Dolly Dash, a fundraiser for Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC).

The event was held to raise both awareness and funding for a free reading program instituted by Dolly Parton called the Imagination Library. The program mails a free age-appropriate book once a month to more than 3 million registered children who are ages newborn to five years. It has expanded to five countries and distributed more than 241 million free books.

“This is our first major fundraising event,” said Nikki Love, AEYC’s creative director. “The Dolly Dash was such an uplifting project with about 85 runners. It was so much fun!!

“We will schedule the next race when Celebration is not occurring on the same weekend,” she added with a smile.

Dolly Parton look-alikes Raineka Ackley and Emily Thompson from the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children set the mood for the organization’s first annual Dolly Dash Fun Run on Saturday by wearing fluffy blonde wigs and costume enhancements. Country singer Parton created a reading program called the Imagination Library that mails free books monthly to children ages newborn to five years. The race registration table offers some of the race swag. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Dolly Parton look-alikes Raineka Ackley and Emily Thompson from the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children set the mood for the organization’s first annual Dolly Dash Fun Run on Saturday by wearing fluffy blonde wigs and costume enhancements. Country singer Parton created a reading program called the Imagination Library that mails free books monthly to children ages newborn to five years. The race registration table offers some of the race swag. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

As a partner with the Dollywood Foundation and the Imagination Library, the local nonprofit must raise 50% of the $32,000 needed to participate and support the expenses of books that have no cost to families. Funding comes from grants, donations via the Permanent Fund dividend’s donor program “Pick.Click.Give.” and other resources.

Singer-songwriter-actress Dolly Parton created the foundation and free Imagination Library through her theme park Dollywood located in Pigeon Forge near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

While the country music icon is known for her distinctive appearance, strong voice and storytelling songs, less known is her effort to help youngsters own their own books. The singer says she was inspired by her father’s inability to read or write during his lifetime in rural Tennessee.

As a tribute to her father, Parton created a program to ensure children have books of their own. In a video on her Dollywood foundation website, Parton says, “If you can read you can teach yourself anything.”

One of the runners on Saturday demonstrated a community educational effort. Mendenhall River Community School Principal Eric Filardi ran the Dolly Dash race in a costume of pink shirt and shorts with a small pink cowboy hat perched on his head. He was accompanied by little Lucy Vogel, wearing pink heart-shaped sunglasses and a similar pink cowboy hat as she raced, joined by other members of her family.

Filardi has been in Juneau for a year, but had a wide-ranging career. In addition to other roles he taught English as a Second Language for four years in the United Arab Emirates where he met his wife who had been teaching there for several years before he arrived. Their next move was to Nenana, a railbelt community south of Fairbanks. The Denali Borough School District was facing significant financial challenges. He opted to be one less staff person so others could remain. Plus, with childcare options limited in Nenana and with a young daughter, Filardi applied to the Juneau School District.

“When I came for the interview, I could see Juneau strongly supported the school with the positive signage all around the building,” Filardi said after finishing the Saturday race. “I felt the same sense of community” that was prevalent in the Emirates, he said, where families participated in events — such as picnics and camping trips — together with staff. The positive Indigenous component in Juneau is an important element of the atmosphere he appreciates also.

“As parents we love our school,” said father Eric in a different role than that of school principal. He and his wife Hannah’s rising first-grade daughter Ranger attends Mendenhall River.

“We want the strong family and community connections we see here,” Filardi added.

Running to read puts free books into the hands of youngsters and is one part of the AEYC’s endeavors, Love said. Another long-term goal is building a family center to serve families through connections with others and to reduce the isolation many young families experience.

“Only 30% of Juneau’s children are ready for the social and emotional piece” of starting school, Love said. AEYC helps prepare children for classrooms. The family center would co-locate with other resources to answer the demand. There is a waiting list of 80 families in need of services, she said.

While the Dolly Dash blonde wigs, pearls and pink hats will be tucked away in storage until next year the free books will continue to be mailed as part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. To register a child go to www.imaginationlibrary.com.

• Contact Laurie Craig at laurie.craig@juneauempire.com.

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