"In a hundred years, there will likely be few present-day Volunteer State power brokers remembered by the masses for their impact on the state of Tennessee. A building here, perhaps, a presidential home there, but people will still be talking about Dolly Parton. Even with Parton's considerable successes as an entertainer set aside, her literacy initiatives could help transform the future business climate of the state of Tennessee." - Tennessee Business Magazine, April 2006
Throughout a career that that has spanned four decades, the legendary Dolly Parton has contributed countless treasures to the world of music and entertainment. From penning the mega hit "I Will Always Love You" to her endearing performances in "9 to 5" and "Steel Magnolias", Dolly has crafted a body of work that few can match.
However as impressive as her accomplishments in the entertainment industry may be, Dolly has also carved out a legacy of public service that will touch lives for generations to come.
Recently, a polite interviewer asked her if she grew up in "modest circumstances." Her answer was typically Dolly. "We weren't modest, we were just flat out poor. We were so poor that ants used to bring back the food they had taken from us because they felt so sorry for us!" Dolly's life in her beloved Smoky Mountains may have been devoid of material possessions but her life was full with the love of her family and her love for her hometown. She often refers to this connection to her home as her "Smoky Mountain DNA" and as such, her people are as much a part of her as are her singing, acting and songwriting.
Dolly has never wavered from her commitment "to give back." Over the course of her life, two themes have defined her public service - to help children and to create economic opportunity.
Throughout the 80's and 90's Dolly's efforts focused on the schools in her native Sevier County. She gave money for scholarships, computers, and teacher assistants. In the early 90's she decided the best way to break the cycle of her alma mater's high drop out rate was to convince the 7th and 8th graders to stay in school. She offered each student $500 if they graduated from high school and promised to personally hand them the check the day of their graduation. Not surprisingly, the graduation rate soared and the gesture initiated a community wide effort that sustains the graduation rate even to this day.
In 1996, Dolly unveiled a program called her Imagination Library. Her aim was to inspire a love of reading and a love for books amongst the preschoolers of Sevier County. Each and every child in the county, regardless of their family's income or situation, was mailed a new, age appropriate hard cover book once a month. If the child was registered at birth, he or she will receive 60 new books by the time of their 5th birthday.
Even for someone who describes herself as "a mighty big dreamer" could not have dreamed up the rest of this story. In 2001 Dolly offered other communities an opportunity to replicate the Imagination Library. Today over 600 communities in 41 states including the entire state of Tennessee, offer the Imagination Library to their children. Currently, her foundation works with local partners to mail books each month to over a quarter of a million children and in 2006 close to 4 million books will find their way into mail boxes all across the country. An amazing story but she says, "This is just the first chapter!"
Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen has praised her efforts. He said, "Dolly Parton is a great Tennessean who really understands how important it is to make sure that our children have access to books, especially in those formative early years. She knows the responsibility falls on all of us to make reading a priority so that our kids can lead happier and healthier lives. Through her Imagination Library, she's making that a reality in Tennessee and across the country."
As a result of the Imagination Library program, Parton has received the Association of American Publishers' AAP Honors in 2000, Good Housekeeping's Seal of Approval in 2001 (the first time the seal had been given to a person), the American Association of School Administrators' Galaxy Award in 2002, Chasing Rainbows Award from the National State Teachers of the Year in 2002, and Child and Family Advocacy Award from the Parents As Teachers National Center in 2003.
In 1986, Dolly joined forces with several folks to create Dollywood and set into motion a wave of economic development that has transformed her hometown. Dollywood and her Dixie Stampede currently employ 3,000 people. Over the course of the last 20 years, these endeavors have surpassed over half a billion dollars in payroll and have invested nearly 200 million dollars in capital projects. While there will always be more rainbows to chase, Dolly has worked hard to give as many families as possible an opportunity to find their own pot of gold.
She has often joked that she created Dollywood so her family would have some place to work... and you know she isn't joking after all. Dolly's family includes all of the people in the Smoky Mountains and now encompasses all of the children in the country. Dolly says it best, "I assume God didn't allow me to have children so all children could be mine."