IRON RANGE — Women throughout the region are encouraged to support early childhood education by throwing on some comfy PJs, getting cozy in the comfort of their homes, and joining in during a one-of-a-kind pajama party.

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota from holding its popular, annual Power of the Purse event in person this year.

Instead, the nonprofit is taking the event — which raises funds for the UWNEMN’s Imagination Library program — online. Dubbed “Pajama Party of the Purse,” the virtual gathering set for Thursday will have no limit to the number of ladies who can participate in the bidding, with auction items ranging from designer purses to “experience” packages.

The pajama party is “a perfect theme for the last year we experienced” during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, said this year’s live auction host, CBS 3-Duluth eventing news anchor Kristen Vake.

Participants of the 13th annual event can “feel safe and relax” while enjoying the auction and camaraderie of other women, Vake said by phone. Since the event is virtual, “so many more people can attend from the comfort of their homes,” especially those who live farther away, she noted.

The UWNEMN’s service area of northern St. Louis and Koochiching counties stretches from Saginaw to International Falls.

Vake, a Chisholm native who still lives on the Iron Range near Hibbing and commutes to and from Duluth, said she is honored for the first-time experience of hosting a live online auction to benefit children in the region of her hometown.

Pajama Party of the Purse will be streamed on the UWNEMN’s Facebook page, and there will be a link for those without a social media account.

“Imagination Library is so incredibly important,” said Vake, a 2009 Chisholm High School graduate.

The program is an early childhood education initiative started by country singer Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation. Imagination Library, which launched locally in 2008, provides free, age-appropriate books to children each month from birth to age 5, regardless of a family’s income. Books are mailed to children in their name. Youngsters enrolled from birth will have a library of 60 books by their 5th birthday.

Reading with children “is the best way to explore and imagine and learn,” Vake said.

About 2,500 to 2,800 children in the UWNEMN’s service area are enrolled each year, said Executive Director Erin Shay. The local United Way has mailed out 360,000 books since the program’s inception.

While supported by The Dollywood Foundation, the UWNEMN purchases all of the books and is responsible for marketing and outreach, which requires an investment of $65,000 annually to keep the program running, Shay said.

“A lot of United Ways have not been able to sustain funding for the cost of the program,” she said. “We don’t want to have to reduce enrollment or pause the program.”

Early literacy is a targeted issue of the UWNEMN’s investment plan, Shay said. However, the agency’s most recent yearly campaign fell $200,000 short, which has made it difficult to support programming.

And Imagination Library is even more important now than ever because of the pandemic, she said. “It’s been a tough year for parents, teachers and students alike.”

Many libraries have had periods of closure during the pandemic, and some families don’t feel comfortable checking out books at this time, Shay noted.

The Power of the Purse typically raises about $25,000 yearly for Imagination Library, and the UWNEMN is hoping to at least bring in that amount, she added.

Vake said she talked with a few families enrolled in the initiative, and “they love it” — especially the opportunity for children to be exposed to a wide variety of stories and topics and the chance to build up “a small library.”

“The Little Engine that Could” is the first book sent out to children in the program, and “Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come” is the final book. Parton’s organization selects the other books distributed each year.

Shay said parents and guardians consistently relay how excited children are to receive the books in the mail, addressed to them. Often, youngsters open the packages before even making it back inside their homes from the mailbox, asking to be read the stories at the end of the driveway or on the front steps.

Early childhood literacy has proven to be a factor in children’s success in school, Shay said. The UWNEMN has also conducted its own surveys, which have shown that more than 82 percent of guardians say the program has increased the amount of time they spend reading with their kids; more than 97 percent have reported that the program has had a positive impact on their family. Often, also, older siblings will read the books to the children receiving them, Shay said.

While there is no registration fee for this year’s Power of the Purse, participants are encouraged to register online. Those who sign up before Thursday will be entered into a drawing to win a $50 Visa gift card. Registration also offers an option to sponsor a child for a year in the Imagination Library program for $35.

“It’s so important to keep the program going,” Vake said. “I’m so excited and grateful to be able to be a part of this fundraiser.”

Not to mention, she said, “there are a lot of really cool items” in the live and silent auctions.

They include a “she shed,” a year-long spa membership, a kayak, a Trek bicycle, mukluks, and “plenty of purses,” Shay said. There will again be a few “mystery purses” valued at $500 to $600 that contain gift cards and other items.

Additionally, the auctions will include outdoor activity packages, including everything from gardening to snowshoeing.

The live auction will take place from 6 to 7 p.m. the evening of the pajama party. Silent auction bidding will open Wednesday and run through Sunday. The online system allows people to choose maximum bids and receive notifications.

Women from far reaches of the United Way’s service territory have already registered, Shay said.

“We are super excited for Kristen to host this year,” and for ladies to have the luxury of “sitting in their PJs, watching on their phone or streaming to their TV,” she added.

The fact that the event “benefits the community I grew up in is very special for me personally,” Vake said.

“The pandemic has been so tough on nonprofits, including the United Way, which has taken a hit this year,” she said, adding that she hopes the pajama party will raise a significant amount of funds “to impact so many kids and families.”

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