Every weekday, I walk by a sign that says, “What would Dolly do?” The small 8-by-11 sign is posted near the office entrance of one of my team members and every time I look at it, it makes me smile a little. Not because I’m a huge fan of Dolly Parton’s music, or acting, though I do enjoy both. But because when I think of Parton, I think of generosity, charity, kindness and grace.
I’m not the only one who equates Parton with these adjectives. On Oct. 13, she was awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. Eric Isaacs, the president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, said Parton is a “tremendous example” of someone who understands the importance of philanthropy. He further stated, “Everyone knows her music … they might know Dollywood for entertainment, more broadly. But now they’re going to know her for her philanthropy, which I’m not sure they have before.”
I first became aware of Parton’s philanthropic efforts and the Dollywood Foundation in the early 2000s. As I recall, I read an article featuring Parton and how her foundation was shipping books to children from ages 0 through 5 in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom free of charge through a program called the Imagination Library. Unbeknown to me, the Dollywood Foundation had been established almost 20 years earlier with the goal of helping children in Tennessee succeed educationally.
One of first programs launched by the foundation started in Sevier County and was called the Buddy Program. The program asked every seventh- and eighth-grade student to “buddy up” with another student, promising them $500 in cash if both students successfully graduated from high school. According to the foundation, the Sevier County High School’s dropout rate declined from 35% to just 6% as a result of this program.
Soon thereafter, in 1995, the Dollywood Foundation established the Imagination Library and began distributing books to local young children. According to the organization, the creation of the Imagination Library was, “inspired by (Parton’s) father’s inability to read and write. … (Parton’s) vision was to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families by providing them with the gift of a specially selected book each month.
The Imagination Library has grown by leaps and bounds since it was established in the mid-90s. According to the Imagination Library website, since its inception, the foundation has gifted over 190,000,000 million books to children. The program is now available in Australia and the Republic of Ireland, along with the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom as previously mentioned. In 2020, 67 Ohio counties had partnered with the Imagination Library. Today, every single Ohio-born child is eligible to participate in the program.
And I’m happy to see her actions recognized by the Carnegie Institution and, by natural consequence thereof, the general public. It’s a whimsical thought, but perhaps if people are aware of Parton’s actions, they too may “do as Dolly,” and contribute to their own community. If you have a child under 5 years old and are interested in the Imagination Library, you can register at imaginationlibrary.com.
This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.