Two little girls made history when United Way of the Flint Hills gave away its 100,000th book from the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program Wednesday at Newman Regional Health.

Raelyn Ewing, 6, who was the first child to receive a book from the local program back in 2013, presented a copy of Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could” to Nellie Tegtmeier, who was born Tuesday.

Outgoing United Way Executive Director Jami Reever, who was instrumental in bringing Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to the local area, was emotional as she spoke about how the program has grown over the last six years.

“It is an overwhelming feeling today, because this is a program that we wanted to bring to the community for so long,” Reever said. “We kind of took that leap of faith back in 2013 and we really crossed our fingers and hoped that people would see it for the quality program that it was, and it grew so much faster than we ever expected. Here we are today, watching a little girl who was 4 months old and who is now 6 giving away the 100,000th book. I never expected that we would be here anytime soon.”

Reever said she realized they would be hitting the milestone while going through paperwork last month. She reached out to Newman Regional Health and Read to Your Bunny Organizers Janice Romeiser and Eleanor Browning to see if they would want to help celebrate, and the event began to come together.

“Today’s celebration is just a great collaboration,” Reever said. “It turned out so much better than I expected.”

Reever said she asked the Ewing family to be a part of the celebration because she felt like it would be a good way to bring the program full circle.

“We were there from the very beginning,” Brooklyn Ewing, Raelyn’s mother, said. “My favorite thing is, instead of us reading them to her, she now reads the books to us. She’s just so much older now. She still has all of her books and she loves them.”

Ewing said she and Raelyn’s dad, Ron Ewing, were always impressed with the books they received each month.

“I think they were a great selection and they were really a great variety,” she said. “Raelyn really loves reading about anything, so it was always a lot of fun. It’s always exciting to get something in the mail, let alone a book. That’s something you get to enjoy over and over again.”

Bethany and Caleb Tegtmeier, Nellie’s parents, said they were thrilled to be a part of the celebration. They have already been receiving books for their 2-year-old daughter Eliza and have enjoyed the Imagination Library so far.

“It’s really special that she gets to be a part of this today,” Bethany Tegtmeier said. “We’ve been loving getting the books in the mail for Eliza. She loves it and she looks forward to getting the books in the mail every month. It’s really neat to be a part of it again today.”

Caleb Tegtmeier said reading is an important part of the family’s daily routine.

“Eliza loves it, and that’s probably the only thing she wants to do all of the time is read,” he said. “She loves books, especially these kinds of children’s books that are more picture-oriented. It’s a good support system. Beth does a great job of going into the library to pick out books and these books [from Dolly Parton] are different.”

Both the Tegtmeiers expect Eliza’s love for books to rub off on her little sister.

Aside from receiving the 100,000th book, the family was surprised with a $100 Walmart gift card from the United Way. They also received a visit from Romeiser and Browning, and received a stuffed bunny and a copy of “Read to Your Bunny.”

“It’s such a nice surprise,” Bethany Tegtmeier said. “We’re really thankful for United Way and all of the donors in our community who donate to United Way who make this program possible. It was a very nice treat as well. It wasn’t necessary, but we appreciate it.”

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails free books to children from birth until they begin school in participating areas. Families with children ages 5 and under who live in Lyon, Osage, Morris and Coffey Counties can enroll in the program free of charge any time by visiting www.unitedwayoftheflinthills.org. Call 342-7564 for more information.

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