When the COVID-19 pandemic began taking a significant toll on adults living with disabilities, staff at Pinewood Inc. knew they were going to have to get creative.

Pinewood is a Cloquet nonprofit organization specializing in providing disabled adults with training in independent living skills, community integration and recreation skills — often through various employment opportunities and activities.

After watching many people within the program lose their jobs, the organization's leaders decided to take a different approach to providing real-life experiences for people they were serving. They decided to look for volunteer opportunities.

The search led them to find “Imagination Library Storytime'': a community reading program offered through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and coordinated by United Way of Carlton County.

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It was a perfect fit.

Now, not only have they brought new experiences to the adults they serve, but they are also the recent recipients of the 2021 Life Enrichment Award from the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation.

“It just meant a lot to us … to have it go one step further," Pinewood Program Director Melanie Maniekee said of the award.

A different kind of work

According to the United Way website, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library works to instill a love of reading in children at a young age by providing each child enrolled in the program with a free, brand new and age appropriate book once a month.

The program is open to local children from birth until age 5, with the potential to build a home library of up to 60 books.

United Way Executive Director Ali Bilden Camps explained that the “Imagination Library Storytime” portion of the program consists of various community members volunteering to record live video reading sessions, which are then sent along with the books.

She said United Way has been working to build the story time program throughout the past year, with a purpose of not only engaging the community, but also working to raise funds for the Imagination Library program.

By working closely with United Way staff, Pinewood was able to involve four of the people they served with “Imagination Library Storytime” by having them record video sessions for three books: “Baking Day at Grandma's,” “Milo's Hat Trick” and “ABCers.”

“Even though you’re not being paid, you’re doing a service,” Pinewood Employment Services Manager Danae Lambert said.

However, the work didn’t come without its challenges.

Because of unique needs, Pinewood had to adjust some of the volunteer programming to meet the needs of those they serve.

For example, one of the adults served by Pinewood, Tammy, wanted to join the program but struggled to read. So, Lambert paired Tammy up with a partner who was a fluent reader for one of the book readings. Then, she had Tammy introduce the book and also provide an ending to the video.

Tammy was thrilled. Not only did the program help improve her letter recognition and other reading skills, but it also brought her joy during an uncertain time. Maniekee said Tammy’s joy and enthusiasm for the program were the main inspirations behind Pinewood’s application for the Life Enrichment Award.

United Way Community Resource Coordinator Emily Hutchison said joy was a noticeable feeling in the Pinewood videos, many of which ended with giggles and satisfied smiles from the participants.

She said not only were the videos fun, but they were also hard work.

According to Hutchison, volunteers from Pinewood spent hours practicing before they would do a final take.

“They did such a fantastic job,” she said.

To date, Hutchison said approximately $5,000 has been raised for the Imagination Library program, with 354 Carlton County children currently enrolled.